The Skeleton Throne

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The Black Swamp Huntsman (Ch 5)

Rochelle was shocked at Belmius’ return the next morning, the disbelief plain on her face as she held a hand to her mouth, covering her gape of surprise.

“You… are an absolute mess...” She managed out, looking the mud-caked hunter up and down. He was still standing outside the inn door, mindful to not track his grime inside.

“If you have a bucket I am happy to wash up out here,” he offered pleasantly.

“Shut up and come inside and I’ll draw you a bath,” she scolded affectionately, her hand to her chest as her eyes remained wide. Belmius entered obediently.

“That Quinn’s crossbow?” The innkeeper’s gaze narrowed in recognition as she saw the weapon hanging at Belmius’ side. The hunter nodded. “So you managed to survive the night and you were able to get a word in with the recluse?” Rochelle tsked, clearly impressed. “You really are something else aren’t you, huntsman Belmius.”

Belmius gave a deep laugh.

“If you say as much, then yes.”

The bath Rochelle drew for him was luxurious. Just being able to sit and soak in something hot and clean after his previous night did plenty for the hunter’s recuperation. Rochelle even offered up a few oils for scents though he turned them down.

“It will not do me much good, trying to hunt out beasts while smelling like heather or lavender,” he joked kindly as he refused her offer.

“Sure, fine.” She retorted back. “Don’t worry about anything sniffing you out because you smell too clean.

He appreciated the mixture of attitude and understanding.

Later he left to see Riktor. The blacksmith was fascinated as Belmius told him the chase in the night that had taken him around Riktor’s own building and shed. He even led him out beside his shop to show him the tracks in the mud from the tense encounter. Riktor shook his head, impressed but frowning.

“If that thing had started clawing up my business while trying to get to you, you are aware that I would be killing you if it didn’t manage to do the job itself, right?”

Belmius laughed and clapped the smith on the shoulder.

“You’ve already said its been to your house before. I figured this was nothing new.”

He did not tell Riktor about how Quinn claimed the beast was actually his old hunting dog, Dover, and how it was possible that Riktor had already met the creature years ago and that its familiarity with the town and his own shop may be because of Dover’s memories or experiences. He did mention instead that Quinn had gifted him his old crossbow to use and asked if the smith would craft him some iron bolts for it. Riktor agreed.

Belmius spent the remainder of his day resting and going over the directions from Quinn for finding the Nedran’s domain in the swamp. He made sure his weapons were sharp and ready and steeled himself for the beast he would be facing. His target was the dragon. As long as he reached the Aylon’s lair before nightfall, he should have a shot at it before he’d have to worry about the red beast becoming involved.

He’d never fought an Aylon. In fact, no one had that he’d known of. Or at least, no one had ever succeeded in stopping one. He’d heard stories of the creatures from afar, always retellings of retellings, rumors of events. This was the closest he’d ever been to one and here he was, preparing to face it himself. He kept his head lifted and his courage up. He did not know if he was prepared. He did not know a way to prepare.

Facing something like that can change you.’ Quinn’s talk repeated in Belmius’ mind as he spent his day restless, trying to make sure he was ready for his hunt. ’It makes strong folk weak. It makes brave folk fearful.’ He took deep, slow breathes as he focused his nerves to calm, just as he’d done so many times before in so many situations. This would be no different. He would not become weak. He would not grow fearful.

His sleep that night was restless. The town was quiet and sounds of distant howls or what seemed like the pad of footfalls often stirred him and rose him from his slumber. The monster was looking for the prey that had escaped it, and the hunter felt the call to go out and face it again. He knew though that he needed to wait. He struggled to sleep through til morning.

Belmius was ready to leave as the sun came up. He was out the door the moment Rochelle awoke and unlocked it for him. She cast him a mixed look, her smile and voice full of hope and luck but her eyes watched him like she never expected to see him again. He gave her a broad grin and promised her he would have new stories when he returned that night.

“I don’t unlock for anybody after nightfall. You know that.” She scolded weakly.

“Ah, but I imagine you will for me this time,” Belmius teased. She smiled. Then frowned. Then shooed him out, her eyes downcast as she closed the door quickly behind him.

Belmius made his way through the swamp as quick as he could, trudging over mud and wading through waist-high waters. Though the weather was less inclement now than it had been during his last foray, his travel was still arduous. Focus and the sense of something impending drove him through the hard terrain at a swift pace, regardless of the difficulty the thick clinging mud brought to each of his heavy steps as he worked through it. He felt as though each movement, each stride forward, brought him closer to an ending, though of what sort he could not say. Nor did he wish to linger on the sensation for too long while alone in the dark swamps. Such thoughts would not serve him today.

The swamp was quieter than any wetland had a right to be. Belmius tried not to focus on that aspect, either. All other senses of foreboding would also not serve him now. Besides, the last time he’d been this deep into the area was during the heavy rain. It was likely the swamp was always this quiet, especially given what he knew of the thing that resided within it. He set his jaw as he continued on.

A wind he could not feel rattled the thin trees as Belmius finally emerged from the murky lake hours later and stepped up onto muddy but firm ground. His clothing soaked, his body cold, and he wanted to stop and rest for just a moment, but Quinn’s insistence of how far he still needed to go played through his mind and pushed him onward. Again the trees shifted and swayed, again he felt no stirring in the air. The swamp remained silent but Belmius no longer felt alone in it. He murmured a curse to himself, eyes scanning the empty woods, and trudged on.

One thing did manage to give the hunter pause in his trekking; a deep impression in the mud. A large paw, bigger than his own hand. Belmius stopped and studied it, looking for others in the area. Only two more were found clearly in the leaf-strewn muck, though there were less defined impressions around as well. From what he could make of if, the trail appeared to be heading away from his current destination, moving deeper eastward into the swamp.

For a moment he contemplated following. Perhaps he could find the dog’s den, maybe even catch it while it slept or was inactive. So far the main connection between all the monsters was that he only found them out and hunting at night. It was possible, if he moved fast enough, that he may be able to reach this one and find it while it was still easier to fight.

The thought was tempting. At the same time he did not know how far out the trail would take him. The hound’s stride was massive, has he’d experienced first-hand during his chase through town. An hour’s worth of its own walking could easily take him the rest of the day to cross. Belmius let out a deep breath through his nose and turned away from the tracks. He would keep his focus on the dragon and continue in search of the Nedran.

Time seemed to blend and flow oddly as the hunter traveled through the bleak swamp forest, passing endless repetitions of bone-white trees that leaned crookedly or jutted straight up from the black muddy ground. Though the day was clearer and he could more easily track the sun as it crossed the sky, Belmius still found there were several instances when he felt like he’d only been walking for several minutes just to look up and find the sun much farther along in its journey above him. The swamp’s lack of landmarks meant he had little to no way to easily track the distances he crossed. He waded only through a sea of thin, bare white trees.

Quinn had warned him about the Nedran’s camouflage, to search for the stalks with no branches. Unfortunately that alone was hard enough to discern just from looking around, and still Belmius had the sensation that he was not alone. It did not surprise him but he did not appreciate it, either.

Finally, after what may have been ages masked as hours, he made it to the area Quinn had described as the Nedran’s lair. Scattered bones decorated the ground, masses of them half-buried in black mud. Others were strewn and broken. Some looked fresh, many looked old. All were picked clean. Several looked like they belonged to any of the many people races of Lendral; Belmius could recognize the partially caved remains of human skulls and the more lizard-shaped jaws of the shrodians. Ribs, limbs, pelvises, all assortments of skeletal remains from bipedal creatures.

Belmius grimaced. He was not so much disturbed at the sight of them as he was aware of the silent warnings they all cried out, their witness to monsters and the dangers of the swamp. He wondered if his own remains would soon join them as he squared himself to face the dragon that awaited beyond. He hoped they would not, but for all the courage he wished to muster, he knew he could not guarantee that to himself.

The hunter continued through the woods of strewn discardings until he hit the edge of water Quinn told him to expect. Stopping at the muddy bank, the toes of his boots just brushed the dark, still edge of the stagnant liquid and he gazed out across it in search of the bare, branchless ‘trees’. He saw none.

His frown deepened. He peered and surveyed, casting his gaze along the water and scoured the muddy banks that stretched to the north and south. There was nothing, nothing but the repetition of crooked woods and their thin, leafless arms. Nothing stirred at his presence, nothing rose up to challenge him. He was alone. And yet, here deep within the swamps, he still did not feel alone. Regardless of that sensation, the thing that he searched for was not where he expected it to be, and for a brief moment the hunter was at a loss.

Perhaps he should have followed the hound’s tracks after all. With no sign of the Nedran and it already being so late in the day, he did not know where to turn to now but knew for certain nightfall would be upon him before he could reach the safety of Bulmar. His trip had been a waste and he was now fated to be lost to the night, stuck out here in the swamps.

The sense of foreboding and the worry he’d worked to hold back during his journey out to this place receded in an instant, replaced instead by anger and upset at the folly of his trip. The hunter grabbed a nearby bone from the ground and flung it into the water with a frustrated shout that carried through the otherwise silent lands. The bone vanished quickly beneath the murky surface with a thick splash and his voice echoed out and slowly faded.

Belmius let out a long sigh, willing his anger to dissipate with his breath as it left him. There was still a little time left before darkness overtook the swamps. He could still search a little longer. The young hunter collected himself, turned to go, and stopped before taking even one step forward.

There, standing among the thin white trees, was the large scarlet form of the hound. It looked like a monster among splinters, red and visceral against the black and white of the swamp. Its tongue lolled from its open mouth as it panted, three dark eyes fixed hungrily on the hunter. Then it bared its awful, dagger-like teeth, let out a bone-rattling bay, and charged forward. Belmius barely had time to pull his crossbow out and fire before the monster was upon him.

The iron bolt hit hard, wedging deep into the hound’s shoulder, and it earned an enraged cry as the monstrosity leaped at him. Belmius moved quickly to drop to the side, one of the monster’s hooked claws catching his shoulder and back as he did, and the large man gave a pained snarl as leather and skin tore like frail paper. As the hound whirled back on him, he staggered to his feet and hurried to reload his weapon with another bolt.

The force of the monster slamming into him knocked Belmius to the ground, the crossbow clattering from his grip as he hit the mud hard. Before he could move to push himself back up he was pinned beneath a massive paw. Thick claws bore into his chest as the hound pressed down and Belmius cried out again in pain and frustration.

The beast threw its head forward, maw open as it aimed a deadly bite. Belmius’ hand scrambled for the dropped crossbow near him, grabbing the hefty weapon, and he swung it hard. The weapon smashed against the wolf’s head as it closed in, the strike knocking its aim aside, and it slammed its muzzle into the muddy ground. The hound drew back with an infuriated snarl and pushed down harder on the hunter’s chest as it reared its head. Curved claws dug in deeper through leather and flesh and Belmius felt his chest strain as he struggled to draw in breath under the crushing force.

Crossbow still in hand, with effort he pulled back and swung the bulky weapon again, this time bludgeoning the foreleg pinning him. The hound staggered with a yelp before it snapped its jaws at the offending weapon. It caught the crossbow in its crushing bite and tore it from Belmius’ hand. Though disarmed, at least the hunter could breath and move again, and he wasted no time getting out from under the scarlet wolf.

He sat up and shoved himself back, attempting to scoot out of the beast’s immediate range. Unfortunately, though wounded, the monster was still quick on its feet and Belmius was slowed from his loss of breath and the painful, bleeding wounds on his chest and back. The hound gave a rattling growl and lunged again before Belmius could manage much of a retreat.

The chill of the air plummeted further, breath of both beast and hunter steaming in the cold as the scarlet monstrosity bore down on him. Then something black lashed out overhead, collided with the massive beast, and sent the hound flying.

A huge, lithe form stepped over the prone hunter and his brow creased in confusion and caution as he looked up at the polished obsidian underscales that hovered defensively over him. Four powerful legs stood firm as a long neck and narrow, slender head watched the red hound struggle to its feet from where it had crashed among thin trees, snapping many and uprooting others from the soft ground. The hound gave a dangerous cry, staggered itself upright, and lunged at the new threat.

With an ear-splitting roar, a blast of subfreezing air hit the attacking monster with near physical force, its red fur quickly growing brittle and its hide curling and tearing a though being singed away. The hound tried weakly to snap at the dragon, large chunks of skin now torn from its muzzle as exposed teeth gnashed at the Nedran, but the black beast stepped forward and swatted with a deft hand-like foreclaw, sending the wolf to the side again.

A whip-like tail snapped in the air behind it as it moved with a speed unnaturally fast for a creature its size. The Nedran turned and pounced the fallen hound, striking out like a snake as it closed massive jaws around the crimson beast’s neck. The hound struggled on its side, raking sharp claws uselessly along the dragon’s sleek hide as it jerked in the Aylon’s deadly grip. Belmius heard a terrible crunch as the dragon flexed its jaws and the hound’s three eyes glossed over. Finally the scarlet beast gave a last gurgling groan and went limp.

At first Belmius had no idea what to do, and so the hunter remained on the ground as he attempted to fathom what he must now contend with. Then the dragon released its hold on the dead monstrosity and lifted its head, turning toward the young man as it bore into him with pale yellow eyes.

Your foolishness is a blessing this day, huntsman. The Nedran’s teeth bared unkindly as its voice filled the very air around them. I have been hunting that beast for years and every day it has eluded me. Until you came along. Why have you thrown yourself so heedlessly to the mercy of this swamp?

Belmius’ jaw hung open uselessly as he registered the dragon’s words, more of a sensation that pressed around and through him than a voice to his ears. He struggled to find his own ability to speak.

“I came here… to find the monster in these swamps… the one terrorizing Bulmar and settlements out westward with twisted creatures…”

The dragon gave a deep snort.

And what do you know of the Presence in these swamps?

“Well, honestly...” Belmius gingerly pushed himself up onto his feet, wincing slightly as he sucked in a sharp breath at the pain. He worked to keep his outward display steady and focused. “I was under the impression… that it was you.” His tone was slow and measured, though not from lack of focus or any difficulty brought on by wounds or presence of the Aylon. The hunter was watching cautiously, studying the dragon’s massive form as he looked for signs of what to expect, searching for clues of sudden motions or threatening stances. He did not know what he would do about such a thing, but he was not about to let the grand creature catch him completely off-guard.

The Nedran bared its teeth again, the motion more of a smirk or a humored grimace than an actual threat.

Me? You believe I could accomplish such a thing?

“You are a child of God, are you not?” Belmius took a few slow steps over to his discarded crossbow and bent down to retrieve it, eyes never leaving the black dragon. It did not appear alarmed by his motions; if anything the creature looked amused as it watched him. “I would imagine there is much the God-Children can do.”

You know nothing of what you speak, Huntsman, the dragon gave a snort through its nostrils and the air chilled around Belmius. He froze in his motions, half-expecting the Nedran to rear back or attack, but it continued to watch him with mild interest and partial impatience.

“Then tell me what I don’t know,” Belmius challenged casually as he resumed righting himself, battered crossbow in hand. He chanced a look down at it to assess the damage of the weapon before returning his eyes quickly back up to the Nedran. From his fast glance he did not assume it would fire again. The Nedran let out a deep growl, its already thin patience quickly waning.

An awful Presence exists in these swamps. I have come here to try and track it, but each time I can only feel it so far into the Heart of this land before it eludes me completely. It twists and turns the creatures that move through here, sending them out as monsters, wild and vicious and without rational thought. For years I have been hunting these grounds, trying to stop these monstrosities before they escape to cause harm.

“For years you have been failing,” Belmius countered, his words slow and deliberate as he tried to re-sling his useless crossbow. The deep wound in his shoulder and back stopped him and he winced as he tightened his jaw. “I have been hunting all forms of monsters on my way here, things you have let slip through.”

Watch your accusations, brash Huntsman, the dragon’s teeth brandished again and this time the warning was clear as its pale yellow eyes narrowed, its tail whipping behind it, sending a loud crack through the air. There is much more land to cover here than you have seen. You believe it is only your human settlements the monsters have terrorized? Presumptuous and self-centered mortal.

“Perhaps you are right...” Belmius allowed the cautious concurrence. “But then tell me, what sort of thing avoids the detection of a God-Child for so long? What hides in the swamps that even you cannot find?”

Nothing a mortal will be prepared to deal with, a deep growl rumbled from the dragon and its nostrils flared another warning. You should not be out here. I am grateful of the serendipity that caused you to bring that beast to me, but I cannot abide your presence in this place any longer. The Black Swamps are no place for mortals until that Presence is rooted out and extinguished.

“You will just let me go, then?”

Leave and make sure none ever return, the Aylon rumbled out, the vibrations of its growl trembling through the ground and up Belmius’ legs as he stood. Blood and mud soaked his clothes. He was in no shape to try and challenge the dragon and barely in any shape to continue his trek through the swamp, even back to Bulmar. He sucked in another painful breath, eyed the great creature as it stood and watched him expectantly, then gave a small nod. He turned and started away, his motions stiff and slowed. Behind him he felt a rush of cool air and when he glanced back to look the area was empty save for the corpse of the red hound half submerged in murky waters, its throat torn open.

Belmius managed to make his way past the field of bones before he was finally forced to stop. He needed to rest, he needed to bandage his wounds to try and staunch the bleeding. The hunter carried a small pack on himself always for such reasons and though it was a bit torn up in the fight most of its contents were still dry enough to use. Gingerly he pulled off his ripped shirt and jerkin and packed thick wads of cloth against the oozing gashes.

The swamp was only growing darker and colder and the hunter was not entirely certain of his chances if he tried to wait out the night. On one hand the hound was dead. On the other, he did not know if any other monsters waited to emerge with the nightfall. He was not even convinced of the Nedran’s truthfulness, though at the same time he could not guess why such a creature might be lying to him.

It’s throwing you from its trail, he thought to himself. It’s assessing your threat. Why would something like the dragon find him a threat, though? It’d hardly seemed bothered as it watched him retrieve his crossbow. The weapon was broken, it knew that. You’ve been bringing down monsters. It needed to see how strong you were. It could have let the red hound kill him, though. Perhaps it wanted you to believe its lies. Perhaps you were meant to tell the others in Bulmar, to convince them they were wrong. Perhaps you were to be its fool, to spread its deceit.

Another wind that did not touch the hunter pushed through the trees and Belmius cast a look around. He still did not feel as though he were truly alone. Was the beast following him? Tracking him back to the town? Assuring that he was leaving or that he had bought its story? Perhaps it hid something deeper in the swamps that he was not meant to find. Perhaps that was the trail it was throwing him off of.

‘It makes strong men weak and brave men cowards,’ Quinn’s words again echoed in Belmius’ mind. The hunter clenched his jaw tightly, his fist doing the same as he held a bundle of red-stained cloth against his chest. He was not weak. He was not going to be a coward. The Nedran was trying to mislead him and he would not allow it.

Why it did not just kill him, he did not know. Unless it needed a pawn to spread its lies. Why it could not tell him what was in the swamps, he did not know. What could possibly hide itself from the Creature-Children of Omed’ra? Its deception is spoken so easily. It does not expect you to think beyond what it tells you. What mortal would defy an Aylon’s command to do something as brash as to think for themselves?

Belmius was moving again before he even realized it. The wind that slipped through the trees hissed softly around him. Darkness crept in through the swamp but he did not feel the same fatigue from his fight. He needed to move, he needed to return to Bulmar, to ready himself to come back and face the dragon again. He needed to show that he would not fall to its lies so easily, to be swayed by its presence so readily.

Belmius stepped out of the swamps into the outskirts of Bulmar and the shock of so suddenly finding himself at the town caused him to pause and draw back. He stared in silent wonder at the dark, still settlement laid out before him. He looked up to the sky, searching for the moons and how far they were on their nightly path. He looked back to the swamp. Did he remember trudging through the deep waters again? The hours spent picking through dark mud and white trees? The memories were not clearly present in his mind but still his clothes were soaked, the mud on them still wet, and he was shivering and sore. He certainly felt as though he had trudged through drowned wetlands. Was he so lost in thought about the dragon that he’d glazed over his actual journey? Did something about his run-in with the beast hit him deeper than he knew to the point where it disrupted his awareness?

The young hunter worked his way sorely to the inn but he stopped outside, considering the door. It would be locked. Rochelle would not be up. She would not answer his knock. He clutched at a bandage still pressed to his side and moved on.

Quinn threw his door open before Belmius could even rap a second time.

“You look like death,” the old man’s eyes were wide in fear and shock and his jaw hung slack at the sight of Belmius’ ragged and bleeding form.

“I could use some help,” the young hunter managed a grin at one corner of his mouth even as he winced from pain. The halfhearted joke proved enough to spur Quinn into motion and he quickly ushered the wounded man inside.

“So… you’re back… and in one piece...” Quinn noted as he sloshed a cloth around in a bowl of hot water. Belmius was sitting in one of his wicker chairs, breathing deeply as the older hunter set to clean his muddied wounds. “Though clearly not for lack of something trying to make it all otherwise...” He frowned as he washed black mud and old blood away, examining the large tears that cut deep into the man’s flesh. By sheer miracle none of it appeared to reach bone or fully mangled the broad hunter.

“Did you… did you manage it, then?” Quinn asked, sounding fearful of even voicing the question. “Did you find the dragon?”

“I found…” Belmius’ brow creased, more so in consideration than in pain as he felt the sting of the hot cloth and the deep burn as agitated lacerations began to openly bleed and ooze once more. “I found the hound… Dover. He was there, in the swamp.”

Quinn’s motions stopped at the statement and both men lingered in silence for a moment before the old hunter swallowed and forced himself to continue working.

“Alright… Did… did Dover do this to you?”

“He did,” Belmius acknowledged slowly. “And… when the dog fell, that was when the dragon appeared.” Belmius narrowed his gaze as he stared into the shadows against the far wall. He knew it was a lie, but at the same time he did not trust the Nedran’s own intentions, did not trust its words. He did not know what it was trying at. And he did not feel it would do either of them much good to challenge Quinn’s notions on the dragon when he himself was not inclined to trust whatever had happened out in the swamp.

“You got away?”

“I did,” Belmius stated. He did not want to linger on the event for very long and quickly continued. “The crossbow was very effective against the hound but was broken during the fight. I was not able to test it on the dragon. I need it repaired before I can head back for it.”

Quinn frowned as he cleaned the deep gouge along the hunter’s left shoulder and back.

“You still plan on going back for that thing? That’s madness, that is.”

“No one is safe while it is still there,” Belmius stated, his voice thick and heavy. He believed that statement himself, even thinking back on the event. He just wished he had more answers, knew more of what was going on. There must be something out in that swamp still, whether it be a true ‘presence’ as the Nedran called it or something the beast was trying to scare Belmius away from. Either way, he felt the answers were there.

“Well you’re in no shape, not now,” Quinn stated as he wrung out his washcloth. “You need to give yourself some time to heal, get your strength back. We’ll get that crossbow fixed up. If you’re going back out there, you’ll be going back out ready.”

Belmius agreed with silence. His mind would not stop working, would not stop thinking of the swamp. Not the dragon, not the monster within it, but of rows and rows of white trees jutting like exposed bones from black mud. He could not stop fixating on the silent land and whatever secrets it must hold. Its mystery called to him, pulled at him.

Quinn bandaged up the young hunter’s wounds and offered him a place to bed down for the night. Sleep came to Belmius easier than he expected and much deeper than he was used to. In his dreams he stood among tall white trees that stretched out as far as the eye could see in every direction. As mist rose up from the dark wet ground, a wind that he could not feel hissed softly past him.

And even there, deep within his dreams, he did not feel as though he were alone.

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