“From the scavenging beasts of the forest to the opportunistic birds of the skies, even the insects in the grass play an important role in cleaning our world. The carrion eaters must be respected for a healthy environment.”
Sir David Ballard
A Study in the Breaking Down of Tissues, Dracton College, 3292
Jake pulled up his trousers silently in the early morning, trying not to wake his sleeping comrade. Dogwa had returned to the room from his watch only a few hours earlier. Brom had already dressed and cleaned his rifle with long, smooth strokes with a tattered rag. The cloth was stained with gun oil and carbon from previous cleanings. The gray morning light pierced through the cracks in the shutters and cast against the opposite wall in bright strips.
“Why must we keep watch of that infernal place?” Brom asked relatively loudly. Jake held a finger to his lips for a moment then continued lacing his boots.
“Why not just blow it up, collapse the whole thing?” Brom whispered this time.
“Because we don’t know if that will stop the attacks, just make whatever it is angry or not even do anything at all. There are too many unknowns,” Jake said in a soft, calm voice. He cinched his belt and checked a pistol before tucking it into the empty loop.
Footsteps thumped up the stairs. Someone ran down the short hall toward their room. Jake and Brom clinched their sword hilts ready to defend themselves from whoever wished them harm. Dogwa lunged out of bed and scooped up his tomahawk, showing no apparent signs of grogginess.
Sergeant Amir practically pushed the door down. He stood there for a moment, panting as if he had just sprinted a league. He wore his shining steel breastplate and his full battle uniform underneath. Jake did not doubt his polearm weapons waited close by.
“Gather your things.” Amir panted. “Full battle dress, load your rifles, get your horses and meet at the blockhouse.” He didn’t need to tell them to hurry. The urgency was obvious. As Amir rushed outside to his horse, the three prepared their things of battle.
Already prepared for their guard shift, Jake and Brom loaded more pistols as they waited for Dogwa. One can never have too many pistols.
Dogwa jumped into his trousers and slammed his tomahawk in his belt. He plunged his feet into his uniform boots and shrugged on his jacket. Brom and Jake tied the pistols in pairs with bootlaces at the stocks and draped them over their necks. They had learned this from watching the Marion’s crew prepare for battle. They improved the technique by tucking the pistols into their jackets so they wouldn’t swing while they rode.
Dogwa threw his satchel and powder horn straps over him and the trio grabbed their rifles that leaned against the wall. Margaret was halfway down the stairs ahead of them when they exited the room, also loaded from head to toe with pistols, blades, and ammo. Her very utilitarian braid swung left and right as she descended the stairs and sprinted through the tavern below.
The wrinkly native, Nishtok, had their horses saddled and ready when the four arrived at the stables. Sergeant Amir must have alerted him. Rifles across their laps, they spurred their horses and sped up the hill to the blockhouse. There waited the other knights, minus Roy and Duncan. They must still be on guard. Jake knew they would be upset they missed out on whatever this was as well as for being relieved of duty late. Those at the blockhouse stood around the Count and another man Jake did not recognize.
The new man looked solid. Jake thought a river would have an easier time uprooting a tree than moving him. His barrel chest and wide stance aided the appearance. He was wearing a well-worn set of clothing stained with dirt and soot, as if he worked in the mine.
Jake calmed when he realized this man meant the Count no harm. Sergeant Fane would not allow any harm to befall him anyway. The scruffy man’s curled and waxed mustache moved when he spoke to Varro, who only nodded. When he finished, Count Varro raised his hands to the knights, calling for attention.
“This is Mister Argot DeRothe,” he announced, gesturing to the new face. “The foreman of the iron mine. He has brought some very disturbing and troubling news this morning. I will allow him to address you at this time. Listen carefully and give him the respect you award me.”
The Count stepped back very respectfully and DeRothe took his place. He cleared his throat gruffly and hesitated to start speaking.
“Another wicked thing happened. Arrived at camp early this mornin’, before the sun was up.” Mr. DeRothe spoke with a very thick accent of the northern isles of Brenar. He cleared his throat again, nervously. “Found me miners. They ha’ all been murdered en their sleep. Every one. Most ha’ been bludgeoned, some ha’ been stabbed, but all ha’ been brutally slain. I loved ’em. They were me family. Only family I have.”
A single tear, looking misplaced on his masculine features, rolled down his cheek. “Had,” he corrected.
“Most o’ them ha’ families o’ their own. If the mine ha’ collapsed, ‘t would be me tellin’ their kiddies tha’ their da’ was dead. Tellin’ their women tha’ their man wasn’t comin’ home for a bit o’ iron ore. Don’t rightly know wha’ I’ll tell ’em now.”
He paused bowing his head reverently. “Found who done it. The wretch wa’ still there, li’ nothin’ ha’ happened. Tried t’ grab ‘im. Wanted t’ kill ‘im wi’ m’ bare hands,” he said holding his huge hands like he was strangling some invisible person.
“When I touched ‘im, I wa’ stunned an’ thrown t’ me back, li’ a bolt o’ lightnin’ ha’ shot through me. He looked straight through me li’ I wasn’t there at all. He sat down, naked, en the middle o’ camp. He’s one o’ yours, I think. You call ’im Roy.”
The knights broke into an uproar. The Count shouted, “Silence! Hold your tongues and listen.” When all was silent again, Varro placed a hand on Argot’s shoulder and spoke, “We must go to the camp, observe the evidence against Roy then hold him accountable for his crimes.”
Nearing the camp on horseback, Jake silently wished DeRothe had lied. The morning fog thickened as they climbed in elevation and came to a clearing in the forest. Adeline lay behind them, down a narrow winding road. No one spoke. No birds chirped. The trees didn’t rustle. The air was still. Jake had felt this uneasy feeling before. The same that swept over him before he had found the cave. The sound of horses’ hoof-falls bounced around the hills, echoing.
His blood pumped through his ears. His cheeks reddened, his hands were clammy. He had not been this nervous since before his first battle. In a strange way, once the rush of combat hit him, the sound of gunfire and men screaming profane things, the smell of gunpowder and excrement reached his nostrils, he was no longer nervous. Before each battle, he remembered this and before each battle, he was still weary of what came next. He had never become completely accustomed to that feeling, but it faded with time. Not like this. This feeling was new. He’d felt it at the cave and it had panicked him. The sour flavor of bile crept across the back of his tongue.
I must tame this, Jake thought, or it will be the death of me. His horse’s condensing breath appeared as thick puffs of steam in front of its muzzle. Jake focused on this and slowed his breathing.
An indistinct voice sounded from ahead. All eyes flashed forward. A break in the fog revealed a naked man sitting in the mud hugging his knees to his chest, red runes painted on his skin. Two rows of canvas tents, smeared in dark crimson blood, lined either side. The man sat in the center of the encampment.
The knights dismounted, leaving their horses in the tree line with Argot DeRothe to tend them while they spread along a wide line. Varro nodded, and they moved slowly forward in unison. As they drew closer, Jake confirmed the man in question was indeed Roy. His back turned to the knights, Roy spat as he muttered to himself.
“Nothing necessary about that,” Roy said, his voice cracking. “It swung. Not enough. Not enough! Not enough?”
Varro halted the line with a raised hand. They could hear him clearly at that distance, so they listened.
“What purpose?” Roy demanded. “What purpose greater? The purpose. A greater purpose than you or I. Helped them along the path. Baptism by blood, Roy. Baptism by blood. We did exactly as our master asked and we will receive our reward. For the forgotten and we will be rewarded.”
Count Varro called Roy’s name. The demented man sprung to his feet and turned around. He glared at the Count, grumbling. Roy had a deep gash in his breast. He was covered in a fine mist of blood speckling his face and chest. A thick layer of blood dripped down his forearms and hands to the ground.
Sergeant Brutus Fane towered next to Varro with a boarding axe and his broadsword in hand, casting a long protective shadow over him. Jake thought Varro would be in a difficult position. He must set all emotions he had toward the mad man aside and focus on settling this matter without further bloodshed. His anger could come later.
“Why have you slain these people?” Varro’s voice shook slightly, and Roy said nothing. Jake’s guts tangled and churned. He was barely able to quell the feeling with a gulp.
“Why have you killed these people?” Varro asked again.
Roy stood still and silent. The corners of his mouth turned upward into a sick smile. Varro drew his sword from the scabbard at his side. He placed the tip of the blade over Roy’s heart. The Count stepped forward, bringing their faces close, without piercing the crazed knight’s skin. Varro bore his teeth and the veins in his neck bumped with his thumping pulse. “Speak or be cut down.”
Bursting into mad laughter, Roy fell to his knees, grasping Varro’s pant legs. “Please, slay me. I beg you. Send me to them. I shall be received well.” He spoke loudly between fits of guffaw.
“You can spill my wretched blood with your dagger, or why not let big-ol-Brutus do it. I am unfit to wet your glorious blade. The famous Count Dante Varro. He who has forsaken his birthright to fight someone else’s war,” Roy mocked.
He exposed his throat to Brutus and drew his thumb across it, grinning wildly. Varro pushed him off his trouser leg and drew back in terror. By that moment, the knights had all leveled their weapons and locked them at the ready. Roy chuckled even louder, throwing his head back.
“The forgotten gods have what they need of me,” he yelled. He hissed at himself. “They mustn’t remember. Forgotten. Forgotten. Be forgotten. Stay forgot—”
Roy froze. He gulped and excruciation fell over his face. His bloody fist gripped his chest tightly. Something stirred under his skin. Roy thrashed and called out in pain. A sharp black object pressed through the gash in his chest from the inside. The object split down the middle and let out a loud caw. The beak of a big black raven preceded the head and shoulders. The bird squirmed to free itself from the wound. Roy’s face turned beet-red and twisted.
Spreading its wide wet wings, it was free. It shook blood from its ruffled feathers and took flight, climbing into the foggy sky. The knights stood, mouths agape.
Roy showed extreme exhaustion, with beads of sweat making the blood on his face run to his chin.
“They said it would not hurt,” he spoke hoarsely. More movement could be seen under his skin. He grimaced, then began laughing again. “Pain? My final gift. My token of passage. Pain.”
Roy dug his fingers into the gash and pulled his wound apart releasing a large ant, the size of a small cat. He stretched and tore freeing a few more ants of similar size and several soft-shelled eggs. More ants sprung from the leathery eggs, tearing them with their powerful pincers. Roy sputtered and coughed while maintaining a hearty laughter as his flesh erupted with the creatures. They tore through his belly and back. A lump moved up his throat, ceasing his laughter and replacing it with a gurgling sound.
Eyes rolling to the back of his head, Roy fell backward into the mud and the last of the insects left his body. One ant neared the Count but Brutus crushed it with a mighty boot.
The remainder of the animals made their way to the tents, gnashing their pincers, making loud clicking sounds. The knights pursued, crushing the ants so they may not feed on the flesh of the dead. Jake crushed several at the door of one tent. Inside lay two miners with multiple stab wounds. Milky eyes open wide, frozen in terror.
One creature made it passed Jake’s guard and slipped down a dead man’s throat. His chest heaved with a deep gasp for air and he sat up in his deathbed. Jake felt adrenaline pulse through him as if he were under direct musket fire. The man had surely been dead. He was cut so deeply all over his chest and neck. The miner’s lifeless eyes locked on Jake’s leg, the closest extremity to where he sat. The dead man lunged forward and seized the limb. Jake retracted violently, throwing the man to the ground before he could sink his teeth into the soft leg muscle.
“Back fiend,” Amir shouted from another tent, pushing another resurrected miner away with his pike pole. Brom was locked in a struggle for his rifle with another. He used the weapon to push the miner back as the dead man’s mouth chomped for Brom’s neck.
“Don’t let the ants get to the dead,” Salvo called, crushing the enormous insects with his boot heels. For a short while, the knights kept the ants from entering more of the corpses. The blunt ends of their weapons were quickly failing to keep the current corpses at bay.
A creature had taken Margaret to the ground with overwhelming strength. She struggled to keep her rifle between her face and the chomping teeth of the corpse, but the beast was too strong. Jake watched it bite her shoulder. Her loud shriek echoed in the surrounding wood despite the surrounding commotion. When the monster reared its head, its locked jaws tore her jacket cloth, shirt cloth and a chunk of her skin away.
Jake rushed to her aid. He kicked the miner off Margaret and helped her onto her feet. The dead miner lunged for Jake this time, but Brutus was there. He buried his ax into the creature, splitting it from shoulder to hip. The ax was lodged in bone, so he abandoned it, letting the creature fall.
“There are too many,” the Count shouted over the excitement, “fall back and regroup.” The knights withdrew to a short distance and formed two ranks. Amir, Jorn, Dogwa, and Brom stood with Jake at the front. DeRothe went to the horses, retrieving all the weapons they had brought as well as several red sticks from his own saddlebag.
Argot handed Brutus a war hammer, the Count a pistol and Salvo a halberd from Amir’s horse. Without the hook, Salvo had been renowned for his great skill with two sabers. With the hook, he preferred the halberd. He took the weapon confidently, though, Jake knew, he had not tested himself in combat for some time.
Argot kept two pistols and a wide-bladed dirk for himself. He tucked two of the red sticks into his jacket and moved to the rear of the formation with purpose. The calm he showed suggested military training. His chin still, his eyes focused and his face as a whole, stoic.
DeRothe took a knee behind the formation and cut a scrap of cloth from his shirt. With some powder from a paper cartridge, he primed a pistol’s pan but did not attempt to load a projectile. He dumped the rest of the powder onto the strip of cloth on the ground. He produced one of the red sticks from his jacket and placed its long fuse on the cloth. He held the pistol down so the pan hovered over the cloth. He pulled the trigger, igniting the pan and setting fire to the cloth. The fuse sparkled and sputtered, throwing thin streaks of smoke arcing to the ground.
“Stagger column, move,” Varro ordered and the second rank took a step to the left and the first dropped to a knee.
“Fix bayonets.” The orders were cool and poised yet sharp and decisive.
The undead swarmed on all four limbs as if the ants that inhabited them knew no other mode of movement. They made choking and hacking noises as they searched for flesh. All miners woke and crawled quickly to Roy’s body. They ripped it to pieces, feeding on his meat like wolves on a kill.
“These are not the miners,” Varro called over his formation. “Do not treat them as such. We must vanquish these abominations to let their captors rest.”
Argot cheered in agreement, pumping his fist in the air, followed by the collective roar of the knights. The monsters turned their attention to the soldiers. They slithered across the ground like crocodiles.
“Eliminate this scourge,” Varro said in a somber tone. “Dispatch them as quickly as possible and send these poor souls to rest. Do not cause them any more suffering.”
Varro gave the order for the riflemen to fire. Jake pressed his trigger smoothly, keeping his sights on one of the crawling monsters. His breech vent flashed in his face and his bullet erupted from the muzzle in a puff of smoke and sparks. The shot grazed the back of the beast. Brom had struck his target in the arm, not slowing it down at all. Dogwa hit his target in the leg causing a slight stagger. These squirming enemies proved hard to hit.
The knights switched to their pistols as the enemy drew closer and closer. The knights’ smooth bore pistols were only accurate at very close range. So they waited. Seconds felt like minutes. Closer.
“This is gon’ ta be loud,” Argot said. The fuse sparkled and fizzed on the end of the red stick. DeRothe gritted his teeth and threw the stick as far as he could.
The stick flipped through the air and bounced along the ground, coming to a halt in front of the advancing horde of beasts. Several creatures stopped to examine the burning fuse, when it burnt up into the end of the stick and exploded.
Jake felt a concussion like never before. The ground shook under him. He was almost knocked off their feet. The curious beasts that were closest were vaporized by the blast, others were thrown away from the explosion, stunned.
Jake had heard of these explosives being used as a tool in modern mining but he didn’t know those tools could be this effective in battle. Argot ripped a great portion of the fuse off the second stick. He bent down and was able to light it on the smoldering cloth at his feet. The knights tried to cover their ears with weapons in hand as the burly man threw it. The shorter fuse burned quickly. When it went off, another explosion swept the beasts off their feet, but they quickly regained their footing and resumed their advance.
Discharging their pistols, the knights scored many hits. The beasts, however, did not fall from one or even two bullet wounds.
“Break ranks,” Varro ordered. “Pair up and engage at will. Let none pass us.” The knights spread out, allowing enough space to combat the evil creatures gnashing at their flesh with strong jaws.
Varro slashed one through the heart with his sword and discharged his last pistol into the head of another. He turned the spent pistol in his palm, gripping it by the barrel and used it as a club in his left hand. Salvo swung the halberd with his back to Count Varro, demonstrating exquisite mastery. Sweeping legs with the sharp back hook, stabbing with the long spearpoint and hacking with its concave ax-head.
Firing his blunderbuss, Jorn shredded two monsters with the scattershot. He turned the spent weapon and used it as a club, smashing the ribs of one that had seized his leg. The beast released his leg and Jorn crushed its head with another strike of the blunderbuss, splintering the hardwood stock. He pulled another blunderbuss from its slung position on his back. Lieutenant Fitzand fired from the hip, striking a flailing beast in the torso at close range and sending it to its back. The creature writhed and screeched. He stomped on its throat until its neck broke and it had stopped moving.
Amir speared two in a row as they stood upright to assault him. However, before he could retract his weapon, a third monster grabbed him from behind, attempting to bite through his thick breastplate. Amir pulled his sword from its scabbard with his left hand, thrusting it backward into the beast’s belly. He slammed the creature with his back, staggering it. With a smooth slash, Sergeant Amir dispatched the creature, blood hemorrhaged from its throat. Amir killed the two on his spear in a similar fashion and moved toward Jorn to cover his back.
Two pistols in hand, Argot discharged one into the chest of a monster. He flipped it, using it as a club just as the Count had. He saved his last shot and used his physical strength to his advantage, clubbing as many as he could. He used the bullet on an exceptionally big creature that did not respond to several thumps on the skull. He threw the spent pistol at another that charged from the left. The flying pistol struck it in the nose, and it tumbled to the ground at DeRothe’s feet. He unsheathed his dirk and thrust it through the monster’s ear.
A sprinting creature headbutted Brom in his gut, tackling him to the ground. Brom gasped to regain his breath as he wrapped his arm down around the creature’s neck and squeezed tightly. The creature struggled more and more as he tightened the headlock. Brom drove his knee into the monster’s groin, flipping it over his head. He did not release its neck for fear of it biting his, but now the monster’s gnashing teeth were inches away from Brom’s ear, and he struggled to keep control of the thrashing thing. Dogwa called to him and tossed Brom his last pistol. The gun tumbled across the damp soil and stopped by his hip. Brom picked it up with his free hand and shot the creature in the temple. Rolling to his feet, Brom moved to Dogwa and drew his sword and dagger.
His wide, white grin shone brightly against his black face tattoo. It seemed to Brom that Dogwa loved an excuse to use the combination of tomahawk and obsidian scalping knife. He turned the knife downward in his hand. Seemingly with one motion, Dogwa swept a beast’s legs with the beard of his ax and followed up with a downward stab with his knife as the creature fell. A creature seized him from behind and bit him on his shoulder. Flinging his tomahawk backward, Dogwa lodged the blade in his attacker’s back. Leaving it stuck, he rolled out of the beast’s grasp and cut its throat. It fell to the ground and Dogwa retrieved his tomahawk and noticed another beast charging. He whooped loudly and threw the small ax. It flipped through the air and stuck in the creature’s sternum, causing it to tumble to the ground.
Using her bayonet, Margaret kept the creatures at a distance, until one closed the gap and grasped her rifle. She head-butted the beast then stabbed it multiple times upward, under the ribs. It still would not release its grasp of her weapon. She threw a quick jab into the monster’s nose, roaring like a she-bear. It stumbled backward as blood flowed from its nose and belly. Margaret stabbed it again in the belly and ripped her bayonet sideways, disemboweling the monster. Still, the creature persisted to grasp for her. She drove the bayonet into the creature’s gaping jaws, finally severing its spinal cord and killing it.
Brutus’ mighty blows sounded loudly over the surrounding chaos. Each hammer fall on his enemies sounded like a thick branch snapping off a dry tree. Each swing of his broadsword severed limbs with relative ease. His black eyes peered out through his mask and seemed to scan the area for his next victim even before his current has been fully dispatched. He moved as if he was born to take lives. With a downward strike of his hammer, he shattered a monster’s skull, spraying blood and brains everywhere. With a backward swing, he stuck the hammer’s spike into another’s ear, allowing the momentum to take the creature off its feet. When one locked its eyes on Count Varro, Brutus stepped into its gaze and opened his arms, challenging the beast. The creature charged and Brutus plunged his broadsword into its heart, puncturing the ribcage. The giant picked up the squirming creature on his blade and slammed it to the ground. Brutus put his bootheel onto the monster’s head and pressed downward with a twisting motion. The creature stopped moving with a crunch.
Pinching the blade between his thumb and index finger, Jake threw his dagger, sticking it in a creature’s chest. He then shot his last loaded pistol, striking a charging beast in the face. Jake unslung two pistols from around his neck and swung them over his head on the bootlace. A creature groped his leg and Jake swung the pistols down into the side of its head. One pistol broke free of the lanyard upon impact and the monster fell over limply. Jake swung the remaining pistol over his head like a sling and released it. The weapon struck a monster between the eyes, staggering it. Jake drew his sword and lunged through the thing’s heart, but he had overextended. Another seized his arm and bit deeply into his bicep. Its teeth ground as they sunk into his muscle. Jake drove his shoulder into the monster and fell on top of it. Pinning it down with his body, Jake drew his bayonet from the sheath in the small of his back and drove it up under the creature’s chin and into its brain. A sloppy, yet effective kill. He regained his footing and recovered his sword and dagger.
Down to their most basic of weapons, Jake watched the knights defend against the stragglers of the horde. They were fewer now, and they were scattered, making their disposal easy.
Jake spotted one that had slipped passed them. The creature had almost wandered out of sight down the road, walking upright. Scooping his rifle up and running after it, he loaded on the move; a difficult task. He paused and took his shot, dropping the beast to its knees. He then walked at a leisurely pace and dispatched it by pulling his dagger across its throat from behind.
The knights breathed heavily as they searched for movement. They searched the tents and the opening to the mine. Sensing no further danger, Count Varro wiped his blade clean on his handkerchief before replacing it in his scabbard.
“Is anyone injured?” Salvo looked around at the knights who one by one acknowledged him in sequence. Margaret seemed the most battered, with the gaping bite wound on her shoulder, bloody knuckles from her savage jab and a cut on her head from the gutsy head-butt. The other knights only sustained minor bites, scratches, and bruises.
Varro gave the order to pile the bodies and burn them in case the creatures dwelling within hadn’t perished in the fight. The knights wasted no time. They piled the bodies and Argot doused the pile with a liquid from a large tin can. It smelled very flammable to Jake.
DeRothe smashed a lantern into the heap and the bodies were engulfed in flame. Jake noticed several women ascending the hill and alerted Count Varro. Three carried young children in their arms, several older children trailed at their sides. DeRothe shuddered. Jake noticed Argot’s reaction and knew exactly who they were. They were the wives and children of his miners. The Count quickly stepped forward holding his hands out as if they could be stopped. The women kept walking, with tears in their eyes. The young children seemed confused with wide darting eyes and open mouths. The older ones cried with their mothers. The other knights assisted the Count in restraining the women.
“I must ask you to stand back,” Varro said sternly with his hands up.
One of the women placed a shaking hand over her mouth as she looked over Varro’s shoulder to the pile of burning bodies.
“What have you done?” She sobbed loudly and glared at Varro, her eyes piercing him. Jake felt her despair as if she had the ability to throw it with a look. He did not envy the position Count Varro was in.
“We did what must be done,” Salvo interjected, stepping forward.
“What must be done? How could a man of the cloth do something like this?” a redheaded woman cried. The young boy she carried buried his face in her shoulder.
“It was our duty to remove a curse from your men.” Salvo was offended by her question. “We were protecting everyone on Delwhick from this scourge. You were not here. You did not see the evil that had taken place here today.” The woman’s eyes fell to a bloodstain on Salvo’s robe.
“The priest speaks of duty to us and yet he bears our husbands’ blood on his robes. The evil I see is standing right here. Those who killed our husbands and ask for our gratitude.” The redheaded woman turned to the others and raised her voice again. “The Knights of Apollo have slain our husbands, the fathers of our children.”
She turned back to Varro and sobbed. “Take your cursed soldiers, your wretched priest and the blight you have brought with you and leave our island. Leave those who remain in peace. Whatever peace we may still find.”
Argot stepped between them, chest out and standing tall. “If you’d be needin’ t’ blame anyone, woman, it lies with me.” His voice cracked and his lower lip began quivering. “Et is I, the foreman, who be a’ fault. Strangeness has come t’ our island an’ I done nothin’ to prepare for whatever this es. I feel it too. They were ma family. You are ma family.”
The women softened their expressions from anger. Argot continued with tears in his eyes. “You do no’ know these Knights o’ Apollo, but you know me. You know tha’ I would never harm me men. An evil ha’ fallen on them an’ these men, these holy warriors answered the evil wi’ the liberation o’ the souls it ha’ enslaved. These men don’t deserve your scorn. If you mus’ hold anyone accountable, let i’ be me.”
The redhead stepped forward and laid her head on Argot’s shoulder, who embraced her with his strong arms. The large man laid his head on her shoulder and his broad back heaved as he cried silently.
Making their way through the woods to the cave, the knights did not speak a word. Jake dreaded what they would find there. Duncan had not been heard from that morning and since he was with Roy when the evil took him, he had been presumed dead.
The thick woods blocked Jake’s view of the campsite. He knew it was close due to the voices that flooded his mind. Evil voices that whispered in his brain, bouncing around his skull. One particular phrase stood out among the many others.
“Let it swing,” the single voice repeated over and over in his head.
As they drew closer, the voice drowned out all the others. Jake passed around a tree trunk and guts fluttered. Duncan hung from the treetops by his neck, motionless. Amir took a knee and prayed for his brother in arm’s soul. Brutus moved to where the rope was tied to a fallen tree. As he lowered Duncan’s body, the voice grew louder, echoing through the forest. Jake wondered if anyone else could hear it. His eyes darted to each of them. He wanted to put his hands over his ears and shrink into a ball on the ground but none of the others appeared to share the feeling.
“Let it swing! Let it swing! Let it swing!”
When Duncan’s body reached the forest floor, the voices stopped. Jake realized he had not been breathing. He inhaled sharply and almost staggered from the headrush that accompanied the breath. The forest was silent again. Jakes eyes were drawn to the opening of the cave. There wasn’t anybody there but he felt as though someone or something peered out at them. A shiver rolled from the small of his back up to his shoulders. Brom placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Surprised by the contact, Jake turned quickly, ready to fight. Brom removed his hand and held them both out to Jake to calm him.
Jake apologized silently with his eyes and Brom nodded.
“Are you alright?” Brom asked. “You look sick.”
“Did you hear it?” Jake whispered. Only Apollo knew what the other knights would think if they knew he had been hearing voices. Jake could trust Brom, though. Jake could always trust Brom. Right?
“The voices again?” Brom looked across his nose at Jorn, to make sure he was not listening.
“Just one,” Jake said. “I’ll tell you later.”
Brom agreed silently and the two assisted the other knights in handling their fallen comrade’s body.