The Skeleton Throne

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The Black Swamp Huntsman (Ch 4)

Belmius attempted once more to visit Quinn’s residence after breakfast at the inn. Standing outside on the wooden porch he waited, listening after his last set of knocks for the sound of anyone moving about inside. For a moment the young man considered the doorknob, teasing the idea of trying it out and possibly forcing his way into the reclusive hunter’s home. He declined the thought after only a few seconds. He would not force himself on a man who did not wish to be met.

He spent the day checking the outskirts of town for signs of tracks or the passing of large beasts. He would handle this hunt like any other, he had decided. His searching did return something; massive pad prints, larger than anything he’d seen before. The hunter could fit his entire hand in one and still have room to spare. They were coming to and from the swamps, and in multiple instances he followed where they tracked into town before being worn away.

There was a fresher set that patrolled the northern edge of Bulmar but their trail was soon lost in the watery grounds of the swamp as he tried to trace them back out into the wilderness. Belmius grimaced. If only he could get information from someone who had experience navigating the swamps, he thought to himself. If only there were anyone who might be able to help him understand these attack patterns a bit better, he mused. If only there were some other individual with a similar skill set to his own who could communicate with him in a way that may aid in his goal to stop this beast, he contemplated.

“I told you he wasn’t interested in seeing anyone,” Riktor stated without looking up from the axe head he was polishing as Belmius approached his smithy. The large hunter let out a small groan of displeasure.

“He does not know what he is missing.”

“Have you come to ask for a set of keys to be made for his locks?”

“Tempting but no,” Belmius admitted, a grin tugging at his mouth.

“Shame. Would have been hilarious to see the look on his face for that one.” The smith set the hatchet head aside and turned his attention to the young hunter. “What are you here for, then? Tool repair? Forging?”

“Information.”

“Fine.” Riktor’s interest waned and he turned to his next task to busy himself.

“Does Quinn ever leave his home?”

“Maybe sometimes he steps out to make purchases but I’ve seen people leave packages and bundles at his door.”

“Does he have any family?”

“Nope.” Riktor shook his head, looking up at Belmius again. “No one here in town’s going to get you any closer to him than you are right now, I’m afraid. Would have pointed you in that direction already if that were the case.”

Belmius nodded. “I understand, I understand.” He frowned.

“Not used to having your quarry avoid you so badly, eh?”

“If he were an actual animal, I’d feel less bad barging into his den unannounced,” Belmius admitted with a shrug. Riktor chuckled.

“I don’t want to sound cruel but I don’t feel he’d deserve any less. Quinn did a lot for the town back in the day but he’s been like a completely different person since that Nedran in the swamp. I can’t help but feel like he’s just holed himself up in a cave and needs to be smoked out for his own good.”

“I will consider that if my current hunt continues to fall through,” Belmius agreed. “Is there anything you can tell me about how the monster attacks around here? The wolf? I was told a bit by the innkeeper already. She said it only comes out after nightfall?”

Riktor nodded, grimacing.

“Sometimes you’re laying in bed and you can hear it howling in the distance or sniffing around your house. I’ve stepped out to find fresh tracks after hearing it scratching outside the walls. Horses get pulled from broken stables and no one can leave livestock out in fields at night.”

“Has anyone seen glimpses of it?” Belmius asked. “Out windows, maybe? Figures in fog?”

“It’s a little hard to want to look,” Riktor admitted. “Like, this thing clearly doesn’t care about coming up to homes or walking through the streets. Maybe the only thing stopping it from tearing down doors is that it hasn’t seen the people locked up behind them at night?”

“Maybe,” Belmius agree. He could understand how some might reason that way. “Well, I will let you get back to work. Thank you for your time, Riktor.”

The young hunter walked the town and spoke to any who would entertain him regarding the monster wolf. Most were eager to help however they could, though he gained little information that he did not already know. Belmius was quite a recognizable figure to the locals; he stood out easily from the crowds and rumors of his deeds and arrival spread quickly among a populace ready for respite. Most people knew at a glance who he was before even introducing himself. None could offer him a moment with Quinn, however, and Belmius grew more and more certain that the reclusive hunter was the only one who could give him the information he’d need to handle the swamps where the wolf came and went from and the Nedran was rumored to stay.

Belmius returned to the inn well before nightfall. He settled down for a few hours of sleep and awoke again when it was dark. He stayed up all night, sitting by his open window, and stared out, listening and searching to see if there was anything more he could glean in the darkness. He’d hoped the night might be clearer than before and that he could catch sight of the creature slipping through the streets, but as soon as he’d awoken he felt the moisture in the air. A fog had rolled in from the swamps and now he could only peer out into a world of blackness and haze, a grimace of frustration on his face as he tapped the sill idly and leaned onto it.

The night did offer up a few howls in the distance. Deep, mournful noises that crept their way into the young hunter’s bones like a cold chill and worked to pry forth a deep feel of unease. Belmius frowned. Tomorrow he would spend more time trying to navigate the drowned swamps. It was the only lead he felt he had left.

Rain was pouring down hard the next day from thick clouds that menaced low overhead. It was as though the fog from the night had raised itself from the ground and was now hanging over the town, deluging down upon it.

“Hope you can swim if you plan on heading out in this weather,” the innkeeper teased sullenly. “Days like this always makes it seem like Bulmar may as well be built in the middle of the swamps themselves.”

“You know, when I was younger they tried to teach me how to swim by tossing me into a lake. I just stood up.” The large hunter chanced to joke with the dour business owner. She was not particularly amused. Belmius considered he may need to work on his delivery.

“I have not yet asked your name,” the young man admitted politely.

“Rochelle.” She busied herself with cleaning. “Not all your fault. It’s so rare to get out-of-towners now, I forget people don’t already know who I am.”

Belmius nodded.

“Well, I will try not to bring half the swamp with me as I return, Rochelle.”

“You shouldn’t go out there.” Rochelle stopped in her cleaning to watch Belmius as he paused at the door. He looked back to her.

“I must do the job I have come here to do,” Belmius stated with casual ease. “The answers I need should be found out there.”

“It’s not your job to do, you know.” Rochelle turned her firm gaze to the counter top she’d been cleaning. She was not interested in meeting the eyes of the imposing young hunter, however kind his expression was, as her tone grew terse. “You’re not from here, you don’t need to be worrying about this.”

Belmius turned and took a few steps back toward her, curious about her adamant gloom.

“Surely you would not prefer to keep living with this beast about your town? This ‘Nedran’s Curse’ in your area?”

“I would not prefer,” Rochelle agreed as she resumed her resolute scrubbing, mouth drawn into a grimace. “I’m just tired of good people coming around and dying while mediocre people hide away and do nothing.”

Belmius raised an eyebrow and grunted in consideration. He returned to the counter completely, mindful of her work as he rested a hand on it.

“Do you speak of Quinn?”

“Quinn the hunter, I would never speak poorly of,” Rochelle set her cloth down, listing her head as she squared her shoulders. “That man did great things for the people here and we are all thankful for the help. But this Quinn is barely a shadow of that man. Can’t even bother to talk to people coming ’round to help. Just lets them wander out on their own to be taken by swamp or monster or dragon or whatever else.” She shook her head and refocused on her chore, agitated. “But you’re going to do what you came to do, right? So we’ll have one more good person lost while beast and curse remain. You may as well leave Bulmar now, no one would blame you or call you a coward for it. At least then there’d still be one more good person in this world that I could be sure about.”

Belmius listened to her words quietly as he watched her work. His voice was soft and kind when he spoke again.

“I appreciate the concern. But I would not be a good man who walked away from this town now. So I am afraid the only place I will be going today will be into the swamp.”

Rochelle took her rag and stepped away.

“Suit yourself,” she stated with guarded dismissal. “Just remember, half an hour before nightfall. I don’t unlock the doors for anyone after that point.”

She vanished into a backroom and Belmius heard a door slam shut a moment later. He drummed his fingers thoughtfully on the damp counter top before he adjusted the quiver on his back and turned once more, leaving the tavern as he stepped out into the pouring rain and mud.

A mist rose from the swamp’s muddy ground as the rain pounded down all around. Belmius was soaked only moments after stepping outside the inn, but he reasoned to himself that he wouldn’t be so hesitant about wading through water with as drenched as he already was. He was not planning on going far, just deep enough to get an idea of how the swamp spanned out before he would come back for the evening. Tomorrow he would try venturing farther, looking for signs of either wolf or Nedran as he went. That was his hopes, at least. That was his plan.

Soon he was slogging through murky water, working to keep his heavy steps from sinking too deep into mud beneath him. He’d snapped a small tree before wading in and was using the long stick of wood to prod the ground before each step, mindful of places where mud might give way to something much deeper and feeling out for anything that could trip him up in the dark water. The going was not comfortable but he made good time as he sloshed through.

The swamp was loud from the sound of heavy rain hitting water. It roared around him, deafening him to any other noise that the wetlands might offer. The hunter found his head turning often when he thought he heard some other rustle or splash, but was always unable to determine if the noise was his imagination or some creature camouflaged by the ruckus. He was always unable to decide if the movement he saw was water disturbed by rainfall or by something passing by. He did not get the sense of being watched, however, and so Belmius assumed it was his caution trying to make sense of the unfamiliar area as he continued forward.

It took him a bit of time but he finally left water and found solid ground once more. The hunter wanted to stop and rest, to eat some of his food after the arduous slog, but the woods around him did not offer much in the way of shelter. The trees were all tall and thin, easily stretching over his head by nearly twice his height, but their branches were narrow and bare and they gave no canopy cover from the rain. The ground was soaked and there was nowhere to set his pack or sit. The young hunter leaned against one of the thin white trees, its slight structure bending under the combination of Belmius’ weight and its own lack of roothold in the wet ground, and he enjoyed some jerky and drank from his water flask before he continued on.

Belmius took his time exploring the area. The heavy rainfall and soft ground were sure to wash away any tracks his quarry may have left behind but he was not concerned about that for the moment. He wanted to get a feel for the land, to find if there was an easier way to cross the initial stretch of drowned wetland. Unfortunately all of his searching yielded nothing for the hunter to use. No matter how far north or south he looked, the swamp only offered the shallow lake between himself and his return to Bulmar, like some vast moat warding the region.

The rain was still coming down hard and Belmius struggled to get a sense on how long he’d been exploring. With no sun to track in the sky he had to rely on a more internal sense of time passing, but the hunter was finding that uncharacteristically difficult out here in the swamp. It was as though the monotonous drone of the rain and the unremarkable surroundings of characterless trees sprouting from the muddy ground were dulling his perceptions of time. Belmius shook his head, trying to clear the fog from it. He knew he should not dally if he did not want to risk losing track of the day completely. If he could not estimate how much longer he had until nightfall, the only option was to turn back.

Retreating to the submerged stretch of wetlands, the thunderous sound of the rain once again played tricks on the young man’s senses. Large droplets hitting mud sounded like the pattering of pads against the wet ground. Mists kicked up from bouncing water obscured and mislead the appearances of shapes around him. As before, Belmius often stopped to listen and look, feeling out if there was an actual threat or if it was just his mind making monsters out of shadows. This time, however, the hair on the back of his neck stood up. This time he thought he heard a sound unlike all the others, hidden beneath the cacophony: the sound of something large being dragged along through mud. The sound of thin trees gently creaking their protest as something pushed and moved through them. For the first time since entering these swamps Belmius felt as though he were not alone, as though he were being watched. His brow furrowed and he moved forward a little quicker.

Belmius emerged from the swamps under a storm-darkened sky much later. The sensation of another presence following him having only left when he’d waded back out of the waters and onto the muddy land bordering Bulmar. He still could not estimate the time but it felt uncomfortably later than he’d meant to return by. The rain had not let up at all and the young hunter wiped water from his face and eyes as he trudged into town. The streets were empty and most of the buildings were dark; lanterns, candles, and torches all put out for the evening. Belmius reached the tavern and tried the door. It was locked. He swore under his breath as he drew his hand down his face.

“Rochelle?” He called out her name as he pounded on the door. In response the storm hardened and poured down louder. Perhaps she could not hear him over the deluge. Or perhaps she could but had no intention to answer. He knew her warning about locking up. He did not blame her if she kept to that word. Still he tried one more time, pounding hard on the door to compete with the sound of the rainfall. “Rochelle??”

A loud howl cut through the air, rising over the heavy drum of the rain. Belmius froze, fist still raised. There was no question in his mind that the cry came from the swamps he’d just exited. Already it sounded especially close. Quickly he stepped away from the inn door and began moving deeper into the town in search of shelter. At the same time he drew his bow from his back and grabbed an arrow from his quiver, eyes darting between the buildings and streets as he hurried along.

Another howl erupted from the darkness, this time more to the north but still close by. Belmius instinctively turned and brought his bow up, drawing it taut as he peered through rain and darkness. He did not remain in one place for long, lowering his weapon to hurry quickly down another avenue and away from the howl.

Yet another sounded in the storm, even louder and closer, and once again its location shifted. It was ahead of the young hunter again, though he still could not see anything through the dark and rain even as he held his bow ready and watched. He knew the beast was circling, likely herding him.

Another deep and mournful noise broke the night, now to his right. The howl felt as though it was directly on top of him. Belmius turned his weapon toward the misty blackness and fired down the street through the downpour. First there was silence. Then a form leaped out from the storming night and lunged for him with a terrible cry.

The beast was larger than he was expecting, easily larger than the bear. Three eyes flashed aggressively, the third one a vertical slit in the center of its forehead that opened sideways with a long, thin pupil reminiscent of a snake’s cold gaze. Its hide was a mixture of thick fur and plated scales, its coloring of deep crimson making it barely discernible in the night. Long claws the size of the broad hunter’s forearms curved like sickles and its teeth at their shortest were the size of Belmius’ palms from fingertip to wrist. The monster’s maw gaped open as it surged toward him, rows of sharp fangs exposed and hungry.

Belmius dove to the side, just narrowly avoiding the wolf as he felt it rush past him. He slid on hands and knees through mud, the momentum of his dodge carrying him several feet before he jumped up and took off running down another side road. The beast snarled a noise of nightmares as it turned and chased after him, it’s long gait impossible for the young hunter to outpace as it closed the distance with a few quick strides. Belmius could hear its heavy panting and felt the hot air of its breath against his back. As it lunged forward with a snap of its jaws, he again dropped himself to slide around another building, then quickly staggered up, turned, and fired an arrow at the great scarlet behemoth.

The projectile hit thick hide and then if it went any deeper Belmius could not tell. The beast gave no inclination of pain nor hindrance as it continued its chase, letting forth a vicious roar that echoed like a pack of wolves crying out at once.

Clearly fighting was not going to be an option.

Belmius turned and ran again, looking for places that might be narrow enough for him to slip into that the monster could not so easily fit. The muddy ground beneath his feet allowed for little traction as he raced along, and the times he did find himself losing his footing he simply opted to fall to his knees or sidelong to allow his momentum to move him forward before he could scramble up to continue his run.

The wolf suffered far less, it’s broad, clawed paws finding easier grip on the ground as it tore after him, and the only times Belmius could make any distance from it were during the brief moments when he veered suddenly around a building and it needed a second to alter its course.

Approaching the blacksmith’s shop, Belmius spied a large supply shack built near the main building with a narrower pathway between the two. He ducked through the area, the wolf quickly diverting to move around it, but as the beast circled the outside of the shack the hunter doubled back, racing out the way he’d just arrived and bolted around the smithy and out of sight. For the moment the wolf lost its fleeing quarry and Belmius continued quickly through the town, though still uncertain where exactly to head to.

A whistle pierced through the night, high over the downpour, and Belmius stopped to pant for a moment as he peered around for its origin. Farther down the road he could make out a figure silhouetted in a window holding a torch and beckoning to him with a wide wave. From behind him came another distant howl, no doubt the monster’s response to the noise. He knew he only had a matter of time before it would catch up again. Sucking in a breath of air he charged toward the figure and the house it waved to him from.

As he lurched up the creaky wooden porch the front door of the domicile swung open and Belmius barreled inside, rushing past the stranger who held it for him without a second glance. Finally in shelter the hunter doubled over, gripping his knees as he gasped, gulping in breaths of air. The front door slammed shut behind him.

The room around him was dim and Belmius heard the hard steps of a stiff leg as his savior limped his way over to the drenched young hunter. He finally turned his head to the stranger, still struggling to regain his breath as he hunched forward, drenched and dripping all over the their floor.

He was an older man, his face drawn and thin with a deep scowl on it, and he wore clothing sizes too large for his frame. Despite his hard expression he looked frail and malnourished. Not skin hanging on bone, but certainly not a healthy gaunt. His eyes had dark circles under them, his hair was unkempt but short, and his gaze was permanently disapproving. He looked Belmius over with a grimace, bringing his lantern closer to the begrimed hunter as he assessed him with a criticizing stare.

“You thick-headed dimwit,” the man scolded as he stood back up and limped away.

Belmius pulled himself up straight, ignoring the stitches in his side brought on by his run. He sucked in a few more deep, chest-expanding breathes, holding each before slowly releasing them, and cast his gaze around the dreary home, taking in the area.

It was cluttered and messy. Bare patches on walls and empty nails spoke of decoration long since removed and discarded. Dirty dishes piled up. There were stained bottles and strewn leather and paper wrappings gathering in corners. The place looked like there was no care put into it. Overall it seemed somehow familiar.

“Quinn?” Belmius asked as he looked to the man that rescued him, pulling in another, slower, deep breath.

“Yeah,” the older man grunted. His voice sounding strained, as though speaking was not kind to it. “And you’re Belmius.” Quinn stepped over to a garbage-strewn table, shoving some bottles off of it with a dismissive wave of his hand. He pulled a chair out and plopped roughly down into it, propping one leg out stiffly while the other bent in a more natural manner. “I’ve heard the town talk about you,” the ex-hunter looked over at Belmius with clear scrutiny. “They talk like you’re supposed to be some sort of savior.”

Belmius walked over, his own steps heavy and cautious. This man was not what he was expecting, but then he was not certain what he had been expecting. Certainly not someone spry and hopeful. This Quinn did seem to match more of the mood Riktor and Rochelle took when they talked about the old hunter.

“And what do you think of me?” Belmius ventured to ask. Quinn gestured impatiently and the young hunter pulled out a chair to sit in, resting heavily in the old frame.

“I think you’ve been into the swamps and managed your way back out of them,” Quinn mused with a grumble. “I think you’ve been out at night and seen the beast but here you are, still alive after it. I guess you could be a blessing from Omed’ra Himself solely on the grounds that you’re not dead yet. So yeah, maybe you could be the one to finally help us out.” Quinn sounded tired as he slumped in his chair, scowl replaced with exhaust. He looked like a man who had not rested in days. Years, even.

“Tell me what you know about the beast. About the Nedran and the swamps,” Belmius implored, leaning forward. Quinn’s scowl returned.

“You’re all too eager to jump in. You’ll get yourself killed instantly.”

Belmius shrugged and drew his arms open as he sat back.

“By your own admittance, I have already done just that, and yet here I still am.” He closed his arms and leaned in again, his gaze intense in its need for information. “So tell me what you know. Help me succeed.”

Quinn let out a sigh and turned his gaze away, staring idly at stacked dishes and garbage. The lantern perched upon the table cast shadows over the man’s face that looked long and deep. He seemed hollow. Empty.

“Suppose it would be good to finally have someone who could deal with this mess. Maybe you won’t let them all down, not like...” the hunter trailed off, his words unfinished as he looked unseeing into the trembling firelight trapped in its glass cage.

Quinn leaned forward stiffly in his chair, broad hands and thin fingers with prominent, round joints interlocked as he hung his head forward and stared down to the ground. Belmius waited silently before the old hunter spoke again.

“Where I found the dragon in the swamps is reachable within a day if you travel fast and leave early. But there’s no way to get out there and back before nightfall. And if you want to survive the night, you’ll need to take out that dog first.”

“Dog?” Belmius questioned. “The wolf beast?”

“Ain’t no wolf,” Quinn shook his head as he raised his gaze up to Belmius, giving the young hunter a weary look. “That’s my Dover. Twisted and turned by that damned Aylon.”

Belmius’ eyes narrowed in a silent need for further information and Quinn sighed heavily as he sat back again, slouching in his chair.

“Years ago I went looking for that beast with my hunting dog, Dover. We met it out in the swamps, or rather, it ambushed us. I fled but Dover stayed to fight, damned stupid mutt.” The old hunter cast a sidelong gaze that was as anguished as it was upset. His mouth pulled into a thin-lipped grimace at the memory. “I thought the dragon would just kill him. He wasn’t worth that ending but at least it would have been quick, you know? But for several days after I just kept thinking I was hearing him, hearing his barks and whines again, always at night. Was certain it was just my dreams keeping me from having decent rest. Then the first attack came and I… something in me didn’t feel right. Something kept telling me, screaming at me about how off it all was. Another attack after that and I looked into it a little. One night I was out on my own, just waiting around to get a look at whatever it was that was harassing us, and that’s when I saw him. My Dover. ’Course didn’t look anything like he did anymore but it was a feeling, something I knew inside me.” Quinn blinked as he stared away again. His eyes shined red in the lantern light, more reflective now than they had been just moments ago.

“Seeing him, how that monster had twisted him, I just… could not...” The hunter’s voice quivered and he swallowed, pausing for a moment as his gaze fell to the ground. He finally drew in a breath and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“I left my Dover out there for that dragon to corrupt and twist and now he’s only that monster you saw yourself. Wasn’t anything he did to deserve that. And I can’t even face him, not my old dog, my faithful Dover...” A tear slipped down Quinn’s sunken cheeks and he ignored it as his fingers locked and squeezed together, hands shaking. “Every thing, everyone he’s killed these passed five years, that’s all been on me. And I can’t even bring myself to step out there and stop him.”

“It is not such your fault,” Belmius’ voice was soft with sympathy for the old hunter. “You were wounded those years ago,” he gestured to the man’s stiff leg. “It has been hard enough for others, you cannot destroy yourself for being unable to do more.”

“Well that’s just the thing, isn’t it?” Quinn said sourly, lifting his darkened gaze back up to Belmius. “I know how the stories go, but you don’t really know what happened. You weren’t there. No one was.”

“I… don’t understand?” Belmius’ brow creased as he frowned, confused by Quinn’s words and changed tone. “I don’t follow what you mean. I did not mean to imply that-”

I was never-” Quinn snapped angrily before he looked away, glowering at the lantern’s flame once more. Belmius’ confused frown only deepened. Quinn sat silent for a moment, anger clear on his face as he glared at the light, his jaw clenched tight. The old man finally drew in a breath and closed his eyes before he tilted his head back to Belmius. His voice was tight and curt as he spoke.

“I was never wounded in those swamps. There was no injury.

Belmius looked all the more confused though his expression grew hardened. At first he refused the statement, refuting it with a gesture to Quinn’s stiff leg.

“But… your leg, it...”

Quinn lifted his rigid leg up and dropped it back against the ground. It bumped a little but the old man hardly winced.

“My leg was fine ’til the joints got all stiff from how I was walking on it. When I came back out from the swamp after my run-in with the Nedran I refused the doctor. I didn’t want anyone to know, I just…” he turned his glare away once more, unable to face the young hunter who’s expression turned slowly more reproachful in his revelation. “I didn’t want anyone coming to me anymore. I needed an out. It seemed like the only way.”

“So you’re a coward?!” Belmius’ voice boomed with newfound resolution. Quinn winced, the word a harsh blow even though he could not find the strength to deny it. Or perhaps he simply did not have the strength to uphold his lie against it.

“Do you think I’m proud of this?” Quinn hissed back defensively, withdrawing into his seat. His voice was a tangle of shame and anger.

“Do you think I’m proud of this withered old husk you see before you? This mess of a den?” He gestured around his dirty, garbage-strewn home with a wide swing of his hand. “I used to be better! I used to be like you! I used to be somebody!” He spat venomously, leaning forward in his seat as he gripped its armrests tightly to bark the words out at Belmius before he shrank back again, squirming and fidgeting beneath the imposing young hunter’s unwavering and firm gaze.

“I used to be somebody,” he muttered weakly again, more to himself as his eyes fell to the worn floorboards. He drew in a deep, quavering breath, his gaze turning into a plea for understanding from the unmoved man before him.

“Have you ever looked into the face of one of the God-Children?” Quinn asked, his voice now a weak, low tremble, just barely over a whisper. “Something like that… you don’t come back from. Descendants from God Himself. It gets into you. It can change a person… Make brave men fearful… Make strong men weak...”

“Or perhaps it only reveals weak men who have tried to hide as something else,” Belmius said thickly, his already deep tone dropping even lower in his disappointment and disgust. “You could have done more. But you chose to fake a weakness and instead hide.”

“I would have died!

“At least you would have died fighting for something better!” Belmius shot back, his voice rising in volume although it remained low and thunderous. “Instead you hide away, not even willing to show your face to speak to those who would come to help!”

“I helped you, didn’t I?” Quinn’s voice raised in shrill defense.

And how many more died before I came?!” Belmius rose from his seat, his massive form all the more imposing as he squared his shoulders and glared down at the husk of a man before him. Quinn withered under his stern look and brought a hand up to cover his face.

Tense silence hung in the room as neither moved for several moments. Only the lantern light flickered and danced, casting twisted and erratic shadows in the darkness. Outside the rain finally began to let up, the deafening downpour now a much lighter shower.

“I started hearing news...” Quinn’s voice began weakly. His face was still shaded by the hand resting across his forehead and his words were strained and tight. “News of a young man fighting monsters… and I found myself thinking ‘This is it. This is my second chance...’”

Slowly, Belmius took his seat again. His gaze remained a firm scowl but he listened quietly as the old hunter struggled with himself to speak.

“I didn’t want to get my hopes up, o’ course.” Quinn finally lifted the hand from his head. He leaned heavily on the armrest of the chair, his eyes exhausted and empty as he stared at the floor. “I didn’t feel like I deserved that. I disturbed one of Omed’ra’s Children and now He had no reason to grant me any reprieve from its curse. Maybe I let that happen. Maybe I just let all my hope die. Maybe everyone else who tried to help died with it, too, all because I let my hope go. Maybe that was an extension of the curse, the part that follows me personally.” He finally raised his gaze back up to Belmius again, his eyes red and brimming under the yellow-orange light of the lantern.

“I let everyone down and I deserve all that I get for it, I won’t argue you that. A coward? Yes. Yes I am… I don’t deserve your respect or anyone elses. I abandoned Dover and now he’s been twisted and turned. I abandoned Bulmar and now it’s people have been suffering for years, afraid to even step out at night. I abandoned my work as a hunter and now that curse has been spreading across the countryside to settlements far beyond ours. I’m a shell of a man,” Quinn stated, looking down at his boney hands. “I live in squalor. But I deserve all of that.” The older man drew in a deep breath, his shoulders rising with the effort. Carefully he pushed himself upright, sitting taller for just the moment, raising his chin higher as he turned his gaze back to Belmius.

“I deserve that, but the good people here don’t. They deserve a real hunter. They deserve a hero. And you just may be damned bull-headed and lucky enough to do it for them. So I don’t care what you think of me now, or what you tell them about me later, but while you’re here you need to do this for me. For them. You need to release us all...”

Belmius rested back in his seat, his expression softening. He nodded his agreement.

“I will. That is what I am here for.”

Quinn nodded as well. Then the resolve that he’d mustered left him and the older man slumped and withdrew once more.

“I can tell you where to find that dragon in the swamps. That area is burned into my mind so badly, I swear I could make it there with my eyes closed whether or not I wanted to. As long as you head straight there you can make it over the better part of a day, but as I said, you have no chance to return before nightfall. That’s when Dover will be out hunting.”

“Perhaps slaying the Nedran will release your hound from its curse,” Belmuis offered, though his voice lacked conviction.

“Perhaps,” Quinn agreed weakly, sounding just as unconvinced. “But… if it doesn’t...”

“If it does not, at least I will focus on killing the worst of the two evils,” Belmius asserted, his usual tone returning. Quinn grimaced and nodded.

“I suppose so,” he agreed halfheartedly. The older man sighed and pushed himself out of his chair. He turned and walked through the room away from Belmius, his stiff leg thudding firmly against the ground with each step. He made his way over to a darkened portion of the room and stooped down, and Belmius watched him sort through items obscured by shadows. When Quinn stood back up the young hunter could see a large crossbow held in his arms. The weight of the weapon seemed to pull at Quinn’s shoulder’s, dragging his frame down into a slouch as he hobbled back over.

“Take this,” Quinn offered to Belmius. “You’ll need to adjust to the aim a bit but it’ll offer you a stronger force of fire than your bow could. Don’t take that personally, it’s just a matter of fact in the art of weapon crafting.”

The old hunter held the weapon out to him and Belmius took the offered crossbow. Despite how heavy it appeared in Quinn’s hands, it felt light and eager in his own. Like it was waiting to be used once more. Quinn retook his seat with a soft groan of effort.

“You can’t head out tomorrow. You’ll want a real night’s rest before you go into those swamps again if you’re going to move fast enough. No. Tomorrow morning you head back to Rochelle’s. She’ll want to know you’re still alive.” Quinn frowned, his gaze drifting once more as he rested an elbow on the chair’s arm and leaned his hand into the hollow of his cheek. “Don’t hold it against her for locking up to stay safe at night. She’s seen a lot of people come and go, too. They all have. You just wait out the night here til the sun comes back up and it’s safe to go.”

Belmius nodded. Politeness compelled him to thank the old hunter. A firmness inside him kept the words silent. It did not matter to Quinn, one way or the other.

The older man offered him a place to rest for the remainder of the night before retreating up to the second story of his home, vanishing into the single room above. Belmius lay back on a lounging chair covered in furs and padded with stuffed bags and sacks and listened to the sound of the rain slowly lesson and disperse.

Quinn had not been the man he’d hoped to meet, but he was the man he met regardless, and he was willing to help as much as he could manage. For the moment, though his spirits were dampened by the encounter and the dour tales from the ex-hunter, they were at least renewed and Belmius worked to rekindle the fires of determination that kept him going. It was fitting, he thought, that Bulmar would be his greatest battle. But he would succeed. For the people he had met along the way, for the people here devoid of hope but deserving more, even for the broken hunter and the twisted hound he lost, Belmius would succeed. He would face down the Nedran in the swamps. And even if the wetlands and its beasts dragged him down after it, he would not fall until he at least succeeded enough to break the Aylon’s curse.

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