Well of Bones

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Chapter 15

“Evil magics make evil men, and Emperor Cedric Leone has surrounded himself with such men.”

Kill the Heretics, Unknown Author

Distributed in LaRea in 3312

From an elevated area, the hooded man watched as the cave guards were relieved with fresh marines. Through the trees, the butler could tell that a number of them were drunk.

“Their complacency will cost them dearly,” the robed man said in a low hiss. The shrouded soldiers surrounding him nodded reverently. They allowed the new rotation to settle in for a few moments. The commander, set apart from the rest only by his constant close proximity to the cloaked man, patted the top of his head twice, then made two forward fist pumps toward the glowing campfire.

The soldiers seemed to slither through tall grass, float between bushes and trees as they moved forward. The butler found it hard to differentiate them from shadows. One posted himself behind a tree close to a nodding sentry sitting on a fallen log. The soldier crept up behind him and simultaneously placed a hand over his mouth and his dagger blade upward into his ribs. With lung and heart punctured, it took only seconds for death to take the marine.

After stashing the body in the bushes, he rejoined the collective creep. Another soldier slunk behind a boulder near a more alert sentry. The marine scanned his zone with refined discipline. There was no way the guerilla could catch the man from behind unless he had a distraction. With a few quick hand gestures, a nearby comrade understood and nodded. He tossed a small branch into a bush causing a muffled clatter and the guard squinted into the dark, exposing his back to the first soldier. He took the opportunity and swept up behind the marine, wrapping a thin wire around his throat.

The man struggled and drooled as his attacker dragged him to the bushes by his neck until the marine lay motionless. The guerrillas surrounded the campfire, killing sentries in a similar fashion.

#

Nearly twenty guards were laughing about the party, their weapons stacked against a nearby tree. One of them stood and leaned forward as if to listen to the woods.

“Mr. Weeks? Price?” There was no answer. The guards fell silent, their eyes scanning the forest. He called again. Still no answer. A marine walked to the musket tree and picked his up. The others followed.

“Check your locks, men,” one ordered. The men followed his command. A young marine fumbled with his flintlock mechanism. It wasn’t primed and his hands shook as he rushed the task. An older marine offered his assistance as a dark object whistled through the air and pierced his neck.

“Down!” a marine called, and they fell flat on their bellies. They crawled to cover behind trees, stumps, and rocks. The young marine looked back at the one who had tried to help. A black crossbow bolt stuck through the side of his neck. He sputtered blood as he writhed on the ground, reaching for his musket.

“We must get out of this light,” a guard called out. Two nervous guards stood and ran for the shadowy woods nearby but were dropped with more bolts from the rear.

“We’re surrounded,” the young marine called out before firing at a figure as it dashed between trees. He didn’t know if he had hit him and began reloading his musket immediately. The men erupted into wild musket discharges at shadows. More bolts rained on them. Some were struck in the arm or leg, but no fatalities were suffered with this volley.

Some men reloaded their muskets and attached their bayonets while others didn’t bother with the reloading and just attached the long blade to their weapons. A brave marine dove to the fire grasping a burning log and hurling it into a dry patch of brush nearby. He caught four bolts in his chest the moment the log had left his hand.

The dry brush combusted immediately and leaping flames revealed several enemy positions. The men fired on and killed four of the dark figures. The guerrillas formed ranks, preparing for a charge with spears, swords, and pistols. The marines did the same to counter them. The shadows began the assault with only the sound of heavy footfalls. The marines roared and lunged at them bravely.

The combatants clashed in the warm firelight. Bayonets and pikes were the first to kill. Soon after, swords cut deeply and pistols discharged at point-blank range. Both sides fought valiantly, but the victor was evident from the beginning. For every guerrilla that fell, two marines met their end. The young marine crawled to a fallen log and dove behind it.

Several shadows remained behind on reserve with muskets in hand. They fired a volley, eliminating many, then joined the fight with their swords.

As the skirmish reached its peak, the old cloaked man began a steady walk toward the cave entrance as if nothing could harm him. A brave marine dispatched his opponent with a swift sword thrust then spotted the cloaked man. The soldier cocked his pistol and took aim. The old man paused for a moment, his eyes fixed on the pistol as the marine pulled the trigger.

The gun exploded with a bright orange flash as if something was wedged in the barrel. A cloud of shrapnel tore the soldier’s hand to pieces and blinded him with sharp bits of iron and wood.

Sorcery, the young marine thought. The old man continued his steady walk as the marine’s screams of agony were cut short with a strike of a guerrilla’s blade.

A second marine charged the man with a strong thrust of his sword. The cloaked man sidestepped the strike and reached toward the center of the marine’s chest. The old man snapped the heel of his palm forward, without physical contact. A blue orb formed between his palm and the soldier’s sternum and then vanished, sending the young marine through the air as if he had been hit by a galloping horse. His bones crunched as he slammed into the trunk of a large evergreen. Branches snapped as he fell back to the ground.

The young marine watched his two comrades fall at the hand of this man who had appeared old and fragile. He now appeared as a mountain. An immovable force. The young man remembered his duty to repel any attempts to enter the cave. He gathered his courage and seized a nearby pike from the arms of a fallen guerrilla. The marine threw himself between the man and the cave entrance.

“Go and die by the sword of mortals, boy. It would be more pleasant.” The old man’s voice was deep and sounded as if he were speaking directly into the marine’s ears.

“I have already chosen,” the young man spoke bravely, though his voice wavered. The old man said nothing as he began to breathe in deeply. As he did, the young marine felt his lungs deflate. His breath was being drawn from him in the form of a glowing gray mist. He tried to cry out but fell to his knees, clutching his throat without a sound.

As his face turned red, then purple, the old man breathed in the wispy gray mist. Once it had vanished, he gave a satisfied sigh and walked by with a sadistic smile, brandishing rotting teeth.

#

Then there was someone else standing in between him and the cave as if he just condensed from vapor in the air.

“Fogwater must learn your tricks, old man.” The native stood at the mouth of the cave in his gray clay camouflage.

“You will have tricks to call your own when we are finished, Fogwater,” the old man said. “I am called Francis Ebla.”

“You are a sorcerer; one of the warlocks who serve a great leader across the eastern sea.”

The warlock cocked his head, intrigued. How did this man know so much for being so detached from the developing world around him?

The native stood aside, allowing the old man to lead the way into the cave’s darkness. The man paused and looked back.

The battle was over. The guerillas walked casually among the dead and dying, plunging their swords into the bodies of the fallen marines to ensure each was dead. One marine scrambled to his feet and sprinted into the woods. A guerilla took aim with his pistol and fired. The shot buzzed by the marine’s ear, causing him to flinch. It struck a tree in front of him and he turned sharply downhill, stumbling over sticks and rocks.

“There is no stopping Ebla now anyway,” the guerilla said in Spratzian with a grunt, embarrassed he missed.

The old man frowned and entered the cave.

Fogwater followed the old man into the dark cave. A floating orb of green preceded them by a few feet, casting an eerie glow against the walls. A wide grin appeared on the cloaked warlock’s face as they drew nearer to the well. The voices welcomed him.

“Francis Ebla, Warlock of Spratze,” the voice hissed. “The council must have great faith in you. They sent you all alone to fulfill their dark purpose. Curious.” The old man said nothing as he opened his cloak and removed several candles and a curved dagger.

#

“Fogwater, my son, your day of conquest has come,” the voice whispered in his ear. “The warlock will perform the ritual transforming you into power incarnate. He wishes to use you to his purpose, but you will not be controlled.”

Fogwater’s eyes flicked to the old man. “He cannot hear this. He hears what I want him to hear.”

Pacing the chamber, Fogwater listened intently.

“With this new form, you must choose a new name. There is much power in something as simple as a name.”

The native watched as the old man lit the candles. I will be ruled by no man, even a warlock of Spratze, the native thought. Men are weak. Even those of dark powers. My masters are much darker and much stronger. I have my purpose.

Ebla motioned for Fogwater to take his place beside him at the well. The candles surrounded its rim, lighting the ripples as dark water dripped into it. The warlock rolled up his sleeve and cut his arm with the blade. Blood ran to his fingertips and fell into the water.

“With this blood, I, Francis Ebla, offer tribute in exchange for the transfer of power to the vessel of my choosing.” Pulling Fogwater’s arm over the water, he made an identical cut as his own. “The vessel I choose is the flesh and bone of Fogwater, champion of this land and keeper of the well. I beseech thee, oh, masters of shade. Forgotten ones.”

“Drink from the well nine times with cupped hands,” Ebla ordered Fogwater.

The native hesitated for a moment.

“Do it,” the voice reassured.

The brave obeyed and the warlock stepped backward as he chanted deep and low, hands in his sleeves. His droning grew deeper until it was a visceral buzzing echoing off the cave walls.

On the ninth sip, Fogwater staggered to the ground. His hands groped at the earth and drool seeped through his clenched teeth. His body convulsed as his muscles bulged. Crying out in agony, his skin split, revealing course, dark fur underneath. He grew rapidly to stand nine feet tall. Black claws sprouted from under his fingernails. His hips and knees crunched as they twisted and popped into their new configuration. Split hooves shredded through his feet. A muscular shape of the hindquarters of a bull replaced his human hips and legs. A long venomous serpent sprouted from the bottom of his spine and whipped through the air as a tail would. The curled horns of a ram sprung from his skull. The snout of a bear elongated his face. His shoulders, arms, and torso took on the shape of a large ape. His screams changed to those of a wounded boar.

#

When the transformation had finished, the creature lay motionless on the cave floor. Ebla drew a silver ring from his pocket and cast a spell on it with the short phrase, “With this, I obtain complete control of the creature: Fogwater.”

The old man pierced the monster’s nose septum and placed the ring through the hole.

“He will not be controlled by you.” The voice sent a flutter to the warlock’s heart.

“I have made him. I shall seize control,” he said confidently.

“I have made him.” The voice boomed in the cave like the crack of thunder, causing Ebla to flinch. “I have given him everything his heart desired and now that he has it, he has no need for you.”

“The spell,” Ebla stammered. “My magic is strong.”

“Your magic is weak. With the arcane arts all but gone from the world, you humans are fascinated by the smallest of feats. I will bring about another age of power, but you will not see it. You have seized control of Fogwater. That man is dead. In his place, you see a new being.” The warlock’s eyes widened. He had made a mistake that would cost dearly.

“Tell him, mighty creature of destruction. Tell the mortal your new name.”

Joints cracked as the creature drew itself up. The evil thing towered over the warlock breathing deeply through jagged teeth.

“Skrull is my name,” the monster grunted as he plucked the ring from his nose and flung it to the warlock’s feet.

“You have betrayed me,” the old man called to the well in an earth-shaking tone.

“We serve none. No king. No warlock. No vice. We betray. This is what we do.”

#

Brom and Anna danced in the center of the floor. Jake and Margaret, Jorn and a beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant, as well as Varro and the magistrate’s daughter, Miss Sarah Black, swirled around them with the rest of the dancers. It appeared Miss Black was having the time of her life. She adored the Count. Jake could easily tell. Anyone could tell by the way she looked at him. Varro danced with other girls so as not to send the wrong message to the young lady, but she always turned up as another song started as if the Count had already asked for another dance.

Jake noticed a marine pushed past dancers on his way to the Count. The marine even bumped into Brom, who shrugged it off and continued dancing. Jake craned his neck to track the marine in the crowd. Something felt odd. The Marine placed a hand on the Count’s shoulder.

“My lord,” he said hoarsely.

“Cutting in, eh lad?” Varro asked cheerfully as he paused and then stepped back with a bow.

“Bromley, your sleeve,” Anna exclaimed with a gasp, pointing to a bloodstain on her fiancé’s arm.

“My lord,” the man repeated, groping at his superior’s uniform with bloody hands. Brutus saw this from across the dancefloor and plowed a way to them with his broad shoulders. The giant knight seized the marine by the uniform, pulling the boy off his master.

Falling on his back, the marine revealed several gushing stab wounds. Sarah screamed. The music stopped. The crowd gasped almost in unison.

“Get this man aid,” the Count ordered. “To arms!”

Margaret almost shoved Jake away and locked eyes with the smallest man in the vicinity.

“Pardon me, sir,” she said in a cordial, yet expedient manner. “I need you to take down your trousers, please.”

The man twisted his face and his wispy mustache twitched. “Can’t you stop the bleeding with a jacket or a tablecloth?”

“Just do it,” Margaret said, less cordially this time as she roughly tied her hair back.

The man lurched into action and stripped off his pants. When he held them out to Margaret, she snatched them from him. She put each foot through the pant legs and pulled them up under her dress. The fluffy skirt puffed up and she couldn’t see what she was doing.

“A little help?” she called to Jake. He rushed to help his comrade, understanding now. He cinched the belt down to its last eyelet. Once the pants were secure, Margaret began ripping the fabric of the bulky skirts.

“Help me,” she demanded.

Both knights ripped until the skirts were free. She held the torn fabric to the small man as if they had discussed a trade. When Margaret turned to leave the party, Jake noticed the shoes Margaret had been hiding under her dress were actually her uniform boots. He caught up to her and gestured to the footwear.

“Were you expecting something tonight?”

“I don’t wear heels.”

#

Still in their dress uniforms but armed to the teeth, the knights scaled the hill cautiously in the dark. Jake noticed Brom wore a grim look. When they drew near the firelight, Varro raised a closed fist. His knights halted. He opened his fingers and they spread out and continued a slow yet deliberate advance forward. Before them lay dozens of corpses. Brenarian marines had fallen to crossbow bolts, spears, and swords but there were others. These men were dressed in dark colors and bore no markings or insignia. Most of them had not been killed with conventional weapons. They had been torn apart as if each one had been drawn and quartered individually. Dogwa crouched next to a guerilla who still gasped for air. His bottom half had been ripped away and thrown into the tree above him. His entrails coiled through the branched like a bloody snake.

“Monster. Wretch,” the dying man managed to speak in a thick Spratzian accent before a coughing fit ensued. Blood and spittle streaked down his cheeks.

“Spratzian,” Jorn said. The man stopped breathing with his eyes frozen on his legs and guts hanging above. Dogwa examined his wounds.

“They have been mauled by a great beast. It would take great strength to do this. He spoke of a monster before he passed on.”

“Most of these bodies have been bitten. The teeth marks look like it could be bear. Too big for wolves,” Jake said, examining other bodies.

“No bear could do this,” Brom said as he took in all the carnage.

“Be cautious men, the creature may still be about,” Salvo added. They turned their attention to the cave. Dogwa and Jake relit some of the guards’ lanterns and passed them out. Varro placed Margaret and Brom to guard the entrance as the rest entered. Moving through the corridor carefully, Jorn took the lead with his blunderbuss in hand. He burst into the chamber containing the well and scanned it frantically for threats before motioning for the rest to enter.

Inside lay several more of the dark strangers in pieces, scattered around the room. Jake kicked something wet in the dark. He held his light down to it. At his feet lay a pile of human skin. No bone, organs or muscle. Then the sound of a hacking cough drew the men’s attention to the warlock. The old man had been gored; his insides were strewn about and large chunks of flesh had been eaten, yet he drew breath as if he were sleeping. Varro crouched next to him and the warlock’s eyes opened.

Jake searched around the pile of skin and found a tomahawk, a knife, and a bow. The tomahawk he had seen on the island besides Dogwa’s. Fogwater’s weapons.

“The wretch left his weapons here. What does that mean?” Jake asked.

“It means he no longer needs them,” Dogwa said as he turned over a slab of bloody flesh. Gray streaks of clay marked the other side.

“He no longer needs them because he has transcended mortality,” the warlock said as he sputtered some blood. “He no longer needs a tool of destruction because he has become one.”

“And you thought you could control such a beast,” Varro said in an angry tone.

“I could have, but I made a mistake. He took a new name with his new form, breaking my spell.” He laughed flippantly as if he had spilled some coffee. The warlock’s guts began returning to their place in his midsection as if they were pulled. Red strings of flesh crossed over his holes of missing tissue, slowly drawing the edges together, closing them. Brutus handed Varro his heavy broadsword. Varro stood over the man, sword in hand, poised to strike.

“Warlock of Spratze. You have committed deeds of evil and for that I, Count Dante Varro of the Order of Apollo, sentence you to death by beheading. Do you have any last words?”

“Skrull is his name,” Ebla hacked. “Remember it well for he is the bringer of your death.”

“May the gods have mercy on your soul,” Varro said as the blade dropped. Varro turned to his men and pointed to the severed head. “Brutus, cut his ears off and remove his eyes then burn them. Throw his head into the eastern sea and make sure it sinks. Salvo, get Mister DeRothe to close the cave with as many explosives as he needs.”

“The Admiral said not to—” Salvo’s objection was cut off as Varro continued.

“The rest of you collect the bodies. The marines should be given a proper burial. The rest shall be burned.”

As the men bowed and exited, Varro gripped Salvo’s arm. “I will not have my word questioned in front of the men. This cave must be closed. We must try to bury the evil. I am done trying to understand it.”

#

The early morning light broke over the mountain and filtered through the treetops. Skrull rose to his full height under a tall oak. From the tree line, he watched the inhabitants of a small farmhouse. Two small girls played with dolls as their older sister and mother filled buckets at the pump. Their red hair shone in the sun like wild berries. Fogwater hadn’t anticipated such hunger, but it felt so natural to Skrull. Filling the void in his belly brought such ecstasy, but that rapture was fleeting. The need to feed was constant.

The father hunched over in the barnyard, shoeing an old plow horse. His brown hair and beard matched his cattle. Four cows ate oats from a long trough. Perhaps beef is just as delicious, Skrull thought. He would soon know.

A loud blast echoed from the mountains, startling the livestock. Explosives? The knights had closed the cave. No matter. Skrull cannot be stopped.

The father had heard it too. He shielded his eyes as he gazed up at the rising dust cloud, perhaps not sure what to think of it. He dropped his hand and bent back over to return to work when he froze, suddenly. The man’s eyes were fixed on Skrull.

That’s it, Skrull thought. I am not hiding. Why would a god hide from a mortal?

The father’s eyes flashed to his musket that leaned against the barn door.

Pick it up. It cannot help you, but if it is of some comfort.

The farmer rushed to the gun and scooped it up. He ordered the girls inside. They looked back at him, confused and scared. Their father shouted again for them to run. This jolted them to action. Very good. Skrull charged down the hill. His hooves thumped the ground and he dug his knuckles in to run on all fours like an ape. He quickly caught the girls and grasped the youngest by her red hair. Skrull picked her up and snarled in her face. The little girl screeched and grasped at the monster’s hand to relieve her scalp. Yes, Skrull thought. Scream for me.

“Unhand her, fiend,” her father yelled, veins bulging in his neck and spittle on his lip. The man knelt, leveling his musket at the monster and fired.

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