The Skeleton Throne

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The Black Swamp Huntsman (Ch 6)

Others in the town were just as shocked at Belmius’ return. Riktor took his crossbow to work on its repairs free of charge. Rochelle demanded his return to the inn where he could eat and rest, and she sent for Bulmar’s doctor so that Belmius’ wounds could get a proper tending to with cleaning and stitches.

For everything that had happened in the swamp, the hunter did not find himself as eager to share the story of his latest hunt as he normally was. He did tell those who asked about the death of the monster that stalked their town. He did tell those who listened about the sighting of the Nedran and his suspicions of the creature’s ill intentions.

No one seemed interested in speaking defense for the Aylon. Most who heard stories of the God-Children only heard stories of destruction and loss. Belmius reassured them of his desire to hunt out the creature once more and end it for good, for the safety of all. The townsfolk were both cautious but hopeful. This huntsman who had come to them had already doing something no one had done in several years: he’d relieved them from the nightmare that had terrorized their town. If anyone was going to manage to defeat an Aylon, Belmius seemed like the one blessed enough to do so.

He did not tell them about the draw the swamp itself held over him, especially in the times when his mind quieted and his thoughts were left to linger toward dark mud and skeletal trees.

“I admit I am amazed it does not seem to haunt you like it haunts me,” Quinn confided softly to the hunter as Belmius sat alone in the older man’s cluttered and dirty home. “I envy you… I wish I could spend just one night free from the gaze of those pale yellow eyes...”

Belmius gave the smallest of nods in acknowledgment. Pale eyes were not his problem.

Several days later, between the doctor’s able care and Belmius’ own quick healing, the hunter was fairing much better. His shoulder and back suffered no loss of mobility and the gouges on his chest were closed with the assistance of the doctor’s needle and thick thread. Riktor had been working on his crossbow and Belmius stopped by his forge to see how it was all coming along.

“I did give it a few reinforcements and replaced the crank on it. It should wind faster for you than before.” The smith offered the crossbow up for consideration and Belmius took it, giving it a few test winds before firing the empty weapon. He nodded.

“Thank you.”

“Just hope it serves you,” Riktor answered. “That would be something to know if my work was good enough to bring down a dragon.”

Belmius chuckled, though the thought brought him more exhaustion than the normal mirth he should have felt.

Finally the hunter was ready to return to the swamps. The place had not left his mind since his return. He was honestly surprised with himself that he’d managed the patience to wait even this long, though days that normally would see him moving about restlessly now found the great hunter sitting and gazing at the dark wetlands on the horizon.

This time he planned on spending at least one night out there. He believed that if he paced himself he could reach the Nedran’s lair earlier the following day. This would give him time to look around for the dragon and hopefully engage it on his own terms, not be caught off-guard by its sudden appearance like last time. All he needed to do was keep as small of a profile as possible during his trek and try not to draw its attention to wherever he camped. He stocked himself up on food and supplies, took extra fur and leathers to help keep insulated and off the cold ground, and headed out into the swamps that were becoming more familiar to him than he’d ever imagined they would.

Belmius moved slower through the wetlands, cutting more southeast and away from the dragon’s lair. The day was gray and overcast and the sky threatened of rain, but the chilled weather and cold water soaking through his clothes did not bother him this time. He was focused, more so than ever before. Foreboding did not travel with him now. But curiosity did.

In his first day through the swamp he heard no sound of wind passing through trees. He felt truly alone in the gloomy and still land, a sensation that he’d not thought possible within the area. Unlike his prior incursions, he did not lose time but found himself acutely aware of his direction and how long everything was taking, as aware as he’d ever felt on hunts prior. With that clarity, a sense of control returned to him.

He reached a point where the water gave way to solid ground and journeyed onward, adjusting his course northward, and traveled6 for several more hours before he finally started to swing back to the west and the direction of the bone-strewn land. Before the sun had a chance to sink too low he found a spot to set up camp, a flattish bit of mud that was less soggy than the surrounded wetland. He did not build a fire for concern of the smoke attracting his quarry, but he did fell a few trees easily in the soft ground and used his hatchet to hack them up, leaning them together into a makeshift shelter.

That evening Belmius enjoyed a dinner of bread and meat Rochelle packed for him and stayed up for much of the night, listening intently and watching for signs of anything at all in the dark swamps. Nothing moved, nothing came, nothing disturbed his quiet night. The hunter caught a few hours of light sleep, his dreams more of a dull awareness of his surroundings than actual rest, and awoke easily the next day as the sky slowly lit above him.

Belmius dismantled his small shelter and continued on. If he were correct in his direction and travel, he should only be a few hours from where he last saw the Nedran, from the spill of bones and the dark still waters.

The day was colder, the clouds all the more dreary, and the threat of rainfall from the day before was now turning into a promise as Belmius felt thick droplets brush him every so often and heard the soft patter of water on mud infrequently around him. He was ready to face the beast, confident in his plans. He heard the trees creak from a wind he could not feel and the hairs on his neck raised as the sense of something more joined him in his travel.

Belmius stopped. He looked around but saw nothing. He looked ahead but saw nothing. The way to the Nedran loomed forward, awaiting him. He looked back. The trees stretched out behind him like an unfamiliar path, even though he had just passed through their area. They beckoned him deeper to the heart of the swamp out westward. He looked ahead again.

It tries to pull you away from something. It hides within its lies what it does not want you to find. Belmius shook his head. If the Nedran were hiding something, he would have time to find it after it was dead. He continued forward on his path.

Time bent again. Hours as eons, eons as minutes. One moment there was no rain, then suddenly it was a deluge, his clothing already soaked. He could not measure the day, as there was no sun to be seen through the dark clouds. He could not measure his travel, as there were no landmarks.

“A trick of the dragon...” he growled to himself. The fog he felt in his mind when trying to focus on this journey must be connected to the beast. It was trying to keep him away, using illusions that muddied his senses. He would not let it stop him. The hunter pressed on.

A crunch drew his attention downward and he withdrew a heavy boot to see the bone crumbled beneath it. Belmius pulled the crossbow from his back and readied it with a bolt. His eyes scanned the area. Surely somewhere within here the beast must be hiding, its dark, shining scales blending too well with the black mud, its long white horns mimicking the stark trees that grew all around.

More than that, Belmius was certain the beast must know he was here. He’d felt another presence for the full day of his travel. Certainly it was the dragon watching him. He just needed to know where, to be able to react before the Nedran could catch him completely by surprise. He moved carefully as he passed over strewn bones. The trees groaned and swayed slowly. He turned quickly to the motion.

No. Behind you.

Belmius whirled and fired without hesitation.

Iron bolt glanced harmlessly off of obsidian scale. The dragon stood from its crouched position, now so obvious, but for how long it had been sitting there watching him, Belmius had no clue. The hunter did not stop to consider it as he drew a new bolt and quickly cranked his weapon. His mind was already planning, already trying to work around the armor of the dragon’s scales and find a weakness. The beast reared back, its mouth open as it drew in a deep breath. Belmius felt the temperature of the air plummet.

What are you doing here?! I warned you not to return!

“You are hiding something, deceptive beast!” Belmius barked back, raising his crossbow up at the ready. “I will not be deluded by your lies! What is it you are guarding?”

You foolish mortal, the dragon’s words drew out as a powerful, slow sensation, and it curled is mouth into a snarl. Pale yellow eyes narrowed at the brazen hunter. It’s already twisting your mind with its presence, isn’t it?

“I am no one’s fool!” Belmius shouted back. He felt himself bristling, he felt anger rising. He worked to calm his breaths, to keep his mind clear. Another trick of the Nedran.

You have already spent too long in these swamps! The dragon’s voice boomed around him, rising to deafening levels as the beast reared its head back again. I thought it would be enough to let you go as I had done the hunter. I see now you are more like the dog as here you return, corrupted and maddened.

Belmius fired another bolt, this one just as useless as the first. The dragon stood unfazed as he reloaded again, searching for any overlooked opening.

If here you are drawn, then here you will die!

The dragon thrust its head forward and opened its maw, unleashing a burst of subfreezing air. Belmius dove to the side to get away, feeling the blast of chill cut through his leather and into his bones even as he managed to avoid its direct onslaught. As the beast craned its neck back and yawned to draw in another swell of air, Belmius rolled onto his knees and lifted his weapon. With sure aim he fired into its open maw.

For a moment the dragon paused, stopping its inhale mid-breath, and Belmius wondered if he’d managed to find the weakness he needed.

No. His intuition gnawed at him. It cares not. Move. NOW.

Once again Belmius dodged to the side to avoid another frozen blast. Sharp chunks of ice impaled the ground where he stood only seconds before. His weapon was not going to do anything against its scales, nor any other part of the great Aylon, so it seemed. The beast was stronger than him, faster than him, and could attack in ways he’d never witnessed before. The hunter gritted his teeth. He didn’t want to come this far for nothing. He didn’t want to have to back down, he didn’t want to have to-

Run.

No.

RUN.

Belmius tore off into the swamp as another frigid blast hit behind him. He did not know where he was going, he just knew he needed to flee, to escape.

The crossbow is too heavy. He could hear trees crashing, could feel the ground shake as the beast gave chase. The hefty weapon was useless. Extra weight. Unneeded labor. He tossed it to the side before instinctively diving to avoid another blast of cold air.

Deeper into the swamp. Into the Heart, where it does not want you to go.

Belmius’ heavy boots slipped on dark mud but each time he managed to catch himself, pushing himself onward. Trees crashed behind him. The air turned frigid from the dragon’s breaths. Don’t look back. Don’t slow down. He did a quick turn to avoid another deadly blast of the Nedran’s attack and caught a glimpse of darkness in his peripheral as the dragon moved to cut him off. Perhaps the only thing giving him the ability to keep such a pace against the beast was that he could navigate through the trees easily while the great creature was forced to crash through them at such speeds.

Again. He stopped in his tracks, skidding as momentum carried him across the slick ground, and ahead of him a tree turned rigid from a chilling flash before it erupted, showing the area in frozen splinters. Belmius adjusted his course and continued his retreat.

His pulse pounded, his breathing was growing ragged, and he was certain the exertion was reopening closed wounds as he felt burning pain through his chest, shoulder, and back. His heart beat so loudly in his ears that he could not hear the dragon over it as it followed behind him. His labored gasps shook his body so wholly that he could not feel the ground tremble under the beast’s footfalls. His leg gave out on him as he pushed too hard and the hunter tripped and fell, tumbling and sliding through the muck. He shoved himself up and turned quickly, ready to react to the dragon’s assault, and his chest heaved as he gulped to catch his breath.

The swamp was empty behind him. Only still trees standing out like gnarled bones as far as his eyes could see.

He cast a gaze to his left and right, crouched in expectation, not certain where the creature would come from. The swamp remained still. Aside from his labored breathing and pounding pulse, all was silent. Belmius’ brow furrowed. Cautiously he stood up and focused on calming his breaths, watching the area with skepticism.

Around him the land beckoned. The trees shuddered and swayed in a wind he did not feel. Belmius turned toward the motion, toward the sensation of hair prickling on his neck. He thought he saw a dark form move in the distance. Perhaps it was the Nedran? Was it taking a stealthier approach now, set to stalk the hunter as the direct chase did not work? Belmius started toward it. Instinctively he reached for the hatchet at his side, the one weapon he still had on him.

Creaking trees and the hints of movement teased the edge of his senses. The rain had stopped completely but he did not know when. Perhaps sometime during the chase? Or perhaps it was before he’d even fought the Nedran. He could not say for sure.

The hunter moved forward cautiously, eyes darting as he tried to catch sight of what shadow was moving just at the corner of his vision, straining to hear what passed through the trees. A long, low sound hid just below his recognition. It filled his mind and taunted him, dared him to hear it through the deafening silence. An unending tone that never halted, never stopped for breath.

Something moved quickly beside him and Belmius instantly turned toward it, raising his hatchet up to strike. A black snake sat coiled and draped over the branch of a white tree beside him, a lone spot of life in this otherwise empty land. It watched him with cold eyes and flicked its tongue to taste the air. Belmius lowered his hatchet. He was frustrated. He felt led on, tricked. Without a second thought he swung his axe at the tree and hacked free the branch the serpent rested on. It hit the ground with a hard thud, let out an unhappy hiss, and slithered off. Belmius muttered a curse to himself as he turned and kept moving forward, uncertain now of where he was and where he was going.

He’d let the Nedran get into his head. Let it fill him with fear, or panic, or maybe just simple confusion. He’d allowed it to spur him into a thoughtless chase, causing him now to be lost deep in the swamp. He needed to find his way back to town, back to Bulmar. He could always regroup again, figure out a new way to come at the beast. But how? And with what? What would one even use to fight a God-Child?

Something heavy moved over his foot and Belmius stopped, looking down. He saw nothing. He continued on again. Then he felt a weight on his shoulder, around his neck. He reached up to grab at scaly coils as the thick body of the dark serpent wrapped itself around him, constricting and tightening. His mind barely had the chance to question how the creature had gotten there when a sharp pain shot through his neck and fangs buried into his flesh.

Belmius tried to shout out but the squeeze of the vermin’s coils stopped his voice before it could escape. He felt venom like fire course into him as the snake gnawed against thick flesh, its horrible burning pulling the hunter to his knees as he gripped and pulled at the serpent. With a defiant tug he finally managed to yank it free and tossed it to the side, reaching for his hatchet to strike, but the snake was already moving out of range. He gripped as his neck, snarling as he sucked in ragged breathes of air, and squeezed his eyes shut.

He could feel the venom’s trail as a searing heat that moved through him. It boiled his blood. He gasped, his lungs refusing to take in air. He squeezed his eyes shut, his gaze blurring and his vision doubling. He gritted his teeth and dug his fingers into mud as he doubled over, every nerve in his body crying out in agony at the internal fire that engulfed him. He opened his eyes again and struggled to breathe as tears fell to the ground.

To come so far in search of a dragon only to be bested by a common serpent.

The pounding of his blood was deafening, like a thrum felt throughout the woods. The edges of his vision darkened and shifted. A shadow encircled him, closing in slowly. The heat that boiled from within now bled out, burning the air around him, drying the mud beneath his hands and knees. It focused with such impossible intensity that Belmius felt as though the sun itself had descended from the sky and was now blazing in the swamps before him.

Why have you brought Me this one, Natiss? Just to watch it die?

Despite the inferno around him, Belmius felt everything inside him freeze at the unknown voice he experienced now. It pressed in on him as the Nedran’s had, echoing all around and throughout, but the sheer, raw power of it was such that the dragon’s voice had been barely a whisper in comparison. This voice fractured his body with its words. This voice threatened to crush him, threatened to rupture him inward and constrict him until he was no more, or something beyond what ‘no more’ could ever entail.

He knew the heat before him was more than just maddened hallucinations brought on by deadly venom. Something was there. Something stood before him. His mind reeled in terror at the thought. It cried out in horror at the knowledge. He wanted to close his eyes, to die, to never discover what thing witnessed him.

But he needed to see it. Beyond anything else, he needed to struggle past the fears and he needed to gaze upon it. With every ounce of will he could muster, Belmius lifted his head to behold what owned the voice that sundered him. His mind burned away as he saw.

A figure stood there. It was fire, it was light. It was the darkness of midnight, it was the sunrise. It was horrible and terrifying. He wanted to look away from it. He would not. He forced his mind to behold it, to suffer the sight of it. It stood tall as the sky yet he could see it so clearly, as though it were a simple being before him.

Around its feet coiled a great black serpent with three rows of milky white eyes on either side of its broad head. In its scales Belmius saw the stars, saw the night sky stretching endlessly into horizons he could not fathom. He wanted to watch the serpent, to become lost in its deep presence. It was easier for him to look upon than the being that stood above it.

Belmius turned his gaze back up to the awful light. He would be destroyed by its greatness before he would succumb to his own weakness.

Yes, I see.

The event of the Being’s voice sounded again, responding to something Belmius could not hear or did not yet understand.

Very well. I will let it speak.

For a moment Belmius felt as though he were pulled from his body. His mouth opened without his command and words began to form in his throat unbidden. He felt torn from himself, like he were drifting down a rushing river. His fingers dug into the mud. He searched again for the pain within his body, for the searing venom in his blood. He pulled himself back into the moment, tears streaming from his eyes as they burned beneath the fires of the one he knelt weak before.

“You are the thing in the swamps,” Belmius’ voice came out, dry and feeble. He felt like he could barely move air from his lungs, if his lungs even held air in them at all. He attempted to take a breath and choked. He ignored the uselessness of breathing. What did it matter before one such as this? He spoke again with words that barely could escape, determined that he would be heard regardless. “You are the one the Nedran hunts.”

Aaah, Khadasune…

The world trembled around him, the ground threatening to split open under the strain of the Being’s words.

He senses Me here but he will never find Me. Only those led by my gatekeeper, the Natiss, may enter My Realm. Which brings Me back to My question: Why are you here?

Belmius’ bones grew brittle and begin to break under the pull of his muscles. He no longer cried tears. His eyes melted and streamed slowly down his face, unable to take in the sight of the Being before him any longer. Still, he would be heard.

“This Nedran will never stop looking for you,” the effort of the words cracked his ribs. His lungs punctured from their splinters and filled with boiling blood. “Eventually it will bring others. But I can stop it...” His body was burning to ashes, he was sinking into the ground. The hunter kept his head lifted high. He would not look away from the One before him. “Grant me the chance...” His jaw fell lose. His tongue crumbled and dropped away. Still he would be heard. “And I will kill it.”

Will you? Look at you. You are barely discernible from the dirt beneath Me.

I will kill it.” Belmius repeated. He was nothing now. But he would be heard.

The inferno became too much for the very world itself. The woods burned away under the blaze. The swamp steamed and boiled. Everything was lost before the presence of the being. All was light and heat; unbearable, inspiring, terrifying.

Grant me this chance and I will kill it.’

All the world was lost. But he would be heard.

Belmius shoved himself up from the ground with a start and a deep gasp, cold air rushing into his lungs. He looked around as he held himself propped on trembling arms. Wet mud splayed out beneath his hands and his clothes were soaked from rain. The swamp was silent. He drew back, sitting up.

Down at his side was his hatchet. Coiled near it a black serpent looked up at him with cold eyes. It flicked its tongue out, tasting the air.

A shadow moved past Belmius. He turned to see the trees sway and creak in a wind he could not feel, the low sound of something dragging through mud barely registering in his ears.

The snake. He reached out and grabbed it, gripping it tight at the base of its head. Its jaws opened threateningly, fangs extended.

Its blood. He reached for his pack and dug out his water flask. Biting the top of it he pulled it open and poured its contents out onto the ground. Then he grabbed his hatchet, pressed the snake to the mud, and with one hard blow the serpent’s head was removed from its writhing body. He grabbed the struggling corpse and held the severed end of it over his water flask, squeezing blood down into the container. It smelled acrid and sharp and stung at his eyes. When he was finished draining it he tossed the husk aside and closed his flask tightly.

The hunter stood, collecting his hatchet and his pack. He needed to return to Bulmar. He needed to prepare. He did not know how yet, but he did not question it. He felt that when it was time, he would know. He had faith in that now.

He turned, knowing without doubt which way to go, and headed through the swamps toward town.

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