Well of Bones

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Chapter 16

“If, before the fight, you believe you will die, you will die twice.”

Master DuPonte of the Order of Apollo

A thick column of black smoke rose into an otherwise clear afternoon sky. The knights galloped to the fire. They had arrived too late. Smoke burned Jake’s eyes and assaulted his nose. They dismounted, ready for action. The farmhouse was engulfed in an inferno. Smears of blood stained the barnyard. The residents had been eaten or otherwise mauled and left for the birds. A single word was written on the whitewashed barn in their blood: Skrull.

Jake just stood there. His eyes fixed on the name in blood. Flies buzzed around him. The smoke was thick and choking. Spreading out, the other knights searched the barnyard for evidence of where the beast had gone, but Jake just stood and stared. Fogwater was certainly proud of his new name, that is, if that creature still is Fogwater, Jake thought. If they could not defeat Fogwater before, what prayer did they have of killing Skrull now?

At Jake’s feet, lay a little girl’s doll, soaked in dark blood. Nearby, a chunk of scalp with flowing, red hair sat in a puddle of mud. Jake inhaled sharply and returned his gaze to the name. What have you done, Skrull?

Jake flinched as Brom placed a hand on his shoulder, snapping him from his gaze locked on the writing in blood.

“Are you alright?” Brom asked.

“I’m fine,” Jake lied, pushing past his friend.

Dogwa remained silent, looking at the bodies scattered around the yard, then nodded. “It hurts my heart to think I could have prevented all this in the forest when he and I were locked in combat.”

“You are to blame for none of this,” Brom said. “It was out of our control long ago. The gods have purposes for these people. We cannot understand.”

“I am the master of my destiny,” Dogwa snapped. “I should have ended him or died trying.”

Amir walked around the corner of the barn and addressed Count Varro. “The livestock were turned inside out, torn to pieces but the beast didn’t eat them. Guess he doesn’t like beef.”

“So, we have a powerful chimera on the loose with a taste for human flesh.” Varro hung his head. When he lifted it again, he spoke with stern authority. “We will ride in pairs to all the outer farmhouses and the monastery. We need all the weapons we can get and men fit enough to wield them. We will barricade all citizens in the interior of the town. We will build defenses. Towers, trenches and walls. If you see the creature, do not engage it. We must fight this thing together. Pray your horse is faster.”

The knights nodded in agreement. Jake drew in a sharp breath, preparing himself for what lay ahead. This was the only way to minimize casualties against such a foe.

“Move out,” Varro ordered. The knights bowed and mounted their horses.

Salvo stood next to Varro and watched the knights depart. “Apollo, help us all.”

#

Swinging downward, Jake’s ax shaved a wedge off of a long, pine pole. He rotated it and swung again taking another chunk off, honing the end into a point. Dozens of other men did the same to more poles. Civilians from all over the island were busy digging a long trench and building a mound in its interior with the dirt they excavated. The trench encompassed the town square and city hall, where the children were staying. The spiked poles were placed along the mound, pointing outward like the bristles of a timber porcupine.

Most lower-class men were busy building the barricade, patrolling the nearby tree line in large groups or felling more trees for the battlements. The rest were constructing six towers that stood twelve feet from the ground. These turrets allowed up to six men to have a wider line of sight and shot range as well as providing a swivel gun platform. The small cannons were once again loaded with grapeshot.

The women brought food and water and sometimes even buckets of nails to the working men withering in the sun and humidity. A group of so-called “gentlemen” stood aside with their ladies. Some just watched as their slaves worked alongside the lesser civilians. Jake grew up around that kind of thing. He thought this behavior in this particular case was especially despicable because everyone else on the island was working.

Count Varro helped in raising a vertical support for a tower. He noticed the group of local gentlemen, in their powdered wigs, velvet jackets and pristine white gloves on their dainty hands.

“They do their station a dishonor,” Salvo said, mirroring the Count’s look of disgust.

“The governor sent us his slaves, but he refuses to leave his home. He puts too much faith in his private guard.” Varro sneered.

Salvo nodded in agreement.

Suddenly a shot rang out from the tree line. Jake jerked his head in that direction. Varro ran to the trench and gazed out over the green field to the trees. A century had fired the alarm straight up signaling riders were approaching.

Two galloping horses and their riders flew over the tall grass on their way to the gate in the barricade. As they drew nearer, Jake recognized them. Jorn and Amir tore through the gate, their steeds kicking up mud. They addressed Count Varro from horseback. “They have agreed to leave the monastery. The wagons are being loaded as we speak. They will be slow-moving and vulnerable. Shall we escort?”

Varro jumped onto a barrel. “Brutus, Salvo, Margaret, and Dogwa, stay here and keep a watchful eye. Build the defenses. Jake and Brom mount up. Jorn and Amir, swap for fresh horses.” He turned to the workers digging and chopping. “I need ten able-bodied men with horses and arms to accompany us.”

Several marines, a few dock workers and two farmers handed their tools off and grabbed their muskets, which were stacked close by. Mounted and fully loaded, the party of fifteen departed through the gate with Count Varro at the front of two rather formidable columns.

#

The caravan of slow-moving wagons had just left the monastery as the cavalcade arrived. Varro ordered the columns to break off and guard either side of the wagons.

Varro galloped to the courtyard where the last wagon tarried. Father Generosity kissed his hand and placed it on the stone foot of Hera. He turned just as Varro approached. “Gods bless you, Count. We received word of what had happened to that family of farmers yesterday,” the monk said grasping the Count’s hand gratefully.

Varro gave an acknowledging smile. “You should make haste, Father.”

As the caravan pulled away and began its journey down the marshland road, Varro looked over his shoulder at the bell tower slowly shrinking into the treetops as the distance grew greater. The count spurred his horse and galloped to the front.

“Slow it down. We need to stay together as much as possible,” he said to Brom and Jake who led the precession. They agreed and slowed the first few wagons with a wave of their arms.

“Look out there,” a Marine exclaimed, pointing into the swamp. A large hairy creature towered over the marsh at a distance. We must not fight this creature now, Varro thought. Not with only half my knights. Not with all these civilians at our back. But if it must be now, we must strike fiercely.

“Form the line,” Varro shouted. The cavalrymen lined their horses along the right side of the wagons, facing the creature. Varro waved the caravan to continue.

A screeching laugh pierced their ears. “You dare face me, fragile mortals? I will break you and feast on your flesh.”

Skrull laughed again. The horses stirred but the riders held them in formation, standing their ground. Their horses snorted and whipped their heads, but they held. Varro would not take his eyes off the creature. Even at that distance, the evil thing exhibited strength. Those goring horns. The slashing claws. Its massive jaws full of ripping and grinding teeth.

The wind changed and swept through the grass toward the caravan from that direction. Once the monster’s scent reached the horses, they frenzied. Some reared, others screamed or tried to bolt. Their riders regained control with some difficulty and circled them back around. Varro smelled it too. The odor of rotting flesh and the musk of a wild animal swirled around him.

Skrull turned and disappeared into a patch of woods on all fours like an ape. The Count marveled at the speed and power of the creature’s movements. A dock worker behind Varro sighed in relief.

“Don’t do that,” Varro snapped, “we are not safe yet.”

#

The front of the caravan passed through the town gate and Jake let his shoulders drop. He had just realized how tense he was, holding them up. The defenses were near completion and Jake was glad. Not only for added protection but because he was tired of digging and chopping. Brom turned to him and Jake gave an uneasy smile. Brom mirrored the expression and said nothing.

The monks and orphans settled into their temporary home in the city hall. Varro called for the knights to rally on him. When they all gathered, Varro removed his helmet and placed it under one arm. Large beads of sweat on his brow made Jake realize, though he did not show it, Varro had been nervous as well.

“We must devise a plan to engage this beast away from Adeline. These defenses are a good measure, but they will not hold against the chimera,” Varro said in a low voice, trying not to dash the hopes of the civilians that surrounded them.

“What assets does that thing have? What did you see?” Salvo asked.

“We know it has teeth,” Amir said.

“It was fast,” Jake said. “Too fast for something of that size.”

“It has hands like a man,” Brom said. “Claws like a bear.”

“The only way we would have a chance is to, somehow, disarm the creature and immobilize it,” Varro added.

“Disarm. Cut its arms off,” Jorn chimed in.

“That’s a rather literal approach,” Margaret said.

“It runs with them as well as uses them as weapons.”

“In order to do that we must be within its lethal range. Firearms are the only advantage we have. We cannot forfeit that edge,” Amir said.

“Our rifles would do little damage to that thing. The farmer had a musket and those Spratzians did as well. Swivel guns are too heavy and cumbersome,” Varro stated.

“We could lure it into an ambush,” Brom suggested. “With cannons on either side.”

“That may be the simplest solution but I fear the beast is too smart for that,” Jorn stated. “We should remain as mobile as possible on horseback.”

“Lassoes,” Dogwa suggested. “My father taught me to make very strong rope by braiding animal sinew.”

“Would such ropes be strong enough to restrain that creature?” Salvo asked skeptically.

“I have never met something strong enough to break them, man or beast.” The native puffed his chest.

“If we have enough loops on him and horses pulling tension, he will not have the space to break them,” Brom added.

“We should have two horses on each, just to make sure we have enough tension,” Jorn said. “We could fashion some sort of two-man lasso.”

“We’ll have to borrow saddles from the ranchers,” Margaret said. “Without saddle horns, that thing would rip those lines right through our hands.”

“Very well. That seems like our best option,” Varro said with a nod. “Make those lassos and acquire those saddles. Get some food and rest. Do whatever you have to do. Tomorrow, we will face this creature.”

#

A blanket of fog stifled the rising sun. The morning air was thick and wet. Cold dew clung to everything. Brom watched the militia patrolling along the battlements and the marines manning the towers. They were not safe. No one in town was, but a show of strength was better for morale. If Adeline were attacked, these men would fight harder if they thought they stood a chance against the creature. Count Varro believed they would be quicker to despair without battlements. Perhaps he was right. He usually was. Brom made his way across the square to the rest of the knights. They were surrounded by dozens of townsfolk either helping with equipment or just to see them off.

At the edge of the mass, Jake put his foot in the stirrup and threw his leg over the back of his horse. A young boy stood at his mount’s side ready to hand up Jake’s rifle. Jake smiled and took the weapon. The boy smiled back before turning his attention to the other knights’ needs. Brom walked past his friend into the thick of the crowd.

Brom looked for his horse’s white and gray speckled hide. There. Andrew held Brom’s horse with Anna by his side. She firmly held Brom’s rifle and forced a smile. Brom snaked his way to his fiancé when Governor Bradford stepped between them with a smile on his face.

Obviously perturbed, Anna collected herself and waited. Brom could tell she didn’t want to make a fuss before the knights left.

“You will be careful, won’t you, lad?” Governor Bradford asked. His smile seemed severe.

“I will,” Brom said, pushing past Bradford.

The governor seized Brom’s arm and the grin was gone. “I believe we should postpone the nuptials,” he said, with a harsh whisper into Brom’s ear. “At the very least, until this has all been sorted.”

Brom looked into the man’s eyes, trying to discover what to make of him. He jerked his arm free and continued to his horse.

“It will be sorted this morning,” he said over his shoulder. “No need to change anything.”

Bradford clicked his heels and lifted his chin in a snapping motion. “Of course it will be.”

Brom patted Andrew’s shoulder. The boy handed him the reins and gave a reassuring nod before taking his leave. Anna kissed Brom for a long moment. He threw his arms around her waist and the kiss deepened. When they parted, he held her in silence, their foreheads touching. He said nothing as he mounted the animal in a single fluid motion. She passed his rifle up to him, and Brom let it rest in the crook of his arm and across his lap. With tears in her eyes, Anna placed her hand on Brom’s thigh. He placed his hand on top and they stayed that way until Count Varro gave the order to move out.

Without hesitation, Brom spurred his horse to a canter to keep pace with the rest of the knights. As they rode through the center of town, they fell into formation. Civilian militia men cheered as the knights rode through the gates in two columns.

#

They galloped through the countryside with the Count at the front. The cool air stung Jake’s cheeks and rushed across his ears. He savored the sensation and took a long breath to calm himself. His exhale shook.

Their horses snorted steam from flared nostrils and their thunderous hooves stirred the soft earth behind them, leaving two strips of churned sod. When they had reached the interior of the island, they came to a place with tall pines evenly spaced across an otherwise open field.

Count Varro raised a closed fist and the cavalcade halted. Jake scanned the pines with piercing eyes. Their thick trunks were perfect for the knights’ purpose with few low branches posing a threat to riders. The ground was relatively flat with plenty of space between the pines to maneuver. Varro turned in his saddle to face his knights.

“This is where we must draw him,” Varro announced in a low voice. “We will keep our distance, prod him with spears, shoot him with our small arms, anger him. When he is blinded with rage, I will give the order and we will lead him back here, where we will finish him together.”

He gave a rather severe look. “Be cautious. Don’t take any unnecessary risks. Do not be careless with your lives. Remember your training and we may make it out of this with our skin.”

Salvo raised his hook. The knights roared as one. Jake’s horse startled and reared.

Amir called out above the cheering, “Let’s get him, boys!”

The cavalcade took off in a gallop. It was a short ride to where the creature was last seen. The ground was soft, the grass grew tall and scattered pools of stagnant water covered the area, making it easy for a horse to lose its footing. They had to be even more cautious. They halted again and formed two ranks. Varro stepped his horse out in front and cupped his hands around his mouth.

“We are here for you, wretch.”

There were several moments of silence. No birds chirped. No frogs croaked. Only the sound of buzzing insects and horses’ breath. Several more moments passed, and Varro produced a pistol and fired into the air. Several more moments of silence passed.

“Are you afraid, abomination?” Varro taunted. “Is this not what you wanted? Or do you prefer your victims to be helpless? You do not seek a glorious fight. Too honorable for you, I’m sure. If you would prefer, we could appear less prepared to slay you. Less frightening that way.”

Skrull’s unmistakable laugh echoed from ahead. “Who do you call abomination, mortal? I am the chosen. I am serving a greater purpose. The only purpose! Who are you to speak down to me? You are the wretched. I shall enjoy tearing into your flesh and feasting on your soft bits.”

“Well, come then, coward. Show yourself,” Varro responded. By the time he had finished, Skrull had emerged from a tree line directly to their front.

“Well go on, mortal. I have revealed myself, now it is your turn. Whom do I have the pleasure of dining on this fine morning?”

Varro stood in his stirrups. “I am Count Dante Varro of The Order of Apollo and you have the unfortunate pleasure of meeting me and my knights on the field of battle as enemies. Our sole purpose today is to slay you and place your head on my wall as a trophy.”

Skrull laughed. “Your purpose is to fill my belly. The Order is dead. Famed monster hunters, softened by the lack of monsters to destroy. Now puppets of the Brenarian Army.”

“We have had some exercise of late,” Varro retorted. “The other creatures created by that evil in the cave have fallen to our blades and you are next to fall.”

Jake leveled his rifle and fired with a loud crack and a puff of white smoke. The bullet struck the creature in the chest with a loud thud. Dark blood splashed from the hole as Skrull grimaced, but he barely flinched. Brom leveled his weapon and fired, striking in almost the same place Jake’s shot had landed. More blood and another wince, but that was all.

Skrull rose to his full height and beat his chest with a loud roar. He charged on all fours and the knights opened fire as they spread out. They did just as the Count said they should, prodding and peppering with shots. The beast swung his arms wildly as the horses circled him. The knights jeered, shouted and cursed at the creature.

Margaret plunged her lance into the Skrull’s back. The creature quickly spun around, snapping the shaft in half. He swung his left arm at her. She barely ducked beneath his sharp claws when he swung his other hand under her horse. His claws sunk deep into the horse’s underbelly. He ripped upward, flipping the horse and throwing its rider. Margaret rolled clear of the disemboweled horse. The animal struck the earth with tremendous force. It lay on its side, kicking and braying, unable to regain its footing. The poor beast’s insides had spilled from its belly. Jake turned his horse sharply just as Jorn called to him.

“I’ll get her.”

Margaret managed to catch her breath and get her feet under her just as her name was called over the chaos. She turned just as Jorn gripped her by the collar as he rode by. She jumped, slinging her leg over the back of the speeding horse.

She was able to reload both of Jorn’s blunderbusses as he prodded with his trident, maintaining the circular movement around Skrull. Margaret fired the scatter gun. The shot skipped off of Skrull’s horn and pulverized his ear. The beast screamed like a wounded boar, placing his palm over the head wound. Margaret quickly fired the second, striking Skrull’s shoulder.

Anger burned in the creature’s eyes. Skrull swung around again just in time for Dogwa to plunge his lance into the beast’s chest. At that same instant, Skrull’s claws crashed downward into his horse’s skull.

Momentum carrying him, Dogwa dove over the beast’s shoulder as Skrull’s other hand groped the air for the flying knight. The monster missed, just barely. Dogwa tumbled on the soft ground and scrambled to his feet. Skrull turned to face him with the knight’s lance still stuck in his torso. Dogwa drew two pistols and fired both. The shots struck just under Skrull’s left collarbone and above the navel. While the beast was stunned, Brom scooped Dogwa up. Count Varro gave the order to fall back with a piercing whistle.

They galloped to the east toward the pines as Skrull stood high in the swamp. Jake looked over his shoulder to check if the creature would follow. Skrull plucked the lance from his chest with a wide sharp-toothed grin. Then dropping to all fours, he ran off to the south.

#

Arriving in the grove, the knights looked back to find they were not pursued. The creature was nowhere to be seen.

“He went south,” Jake panted.

“He didn’t take the bait?” Amir asked.

“Silence,” Salvo hissed. “He could be listening.”

“Form a defensive circle,” the Count ordered.

The knights arranged their horses in a circle with the tips of their weapons facing outward.

“Maybe he went to ravage the town,” Brom said as he scanned the woods.

“Maybe,” Varro said. “But we have not heard a shot from there. Until we do, we must stick to the plan.”

Just as the Count finished, a thick log came flying through the underbrush and struck Brutus from his horse.

“Break ranks,” Varro ordered. Jorn fired his blunderbuss into the bushes where the log was thrown. The knights began a circular motion again as the beast leaped from behind a tree and plucked Salvo from his horse.

Skrull had Salvo by his hook. The holy man fired his pistol into the beast’s face and unbuckled his prosthetic while it was blinded. Salvo’s stump slipped from the hook’s cup and he fell to the ground, scrambling out of the way.

Brom rode up beside Brutus’ loose horse and Dogwa jumped into the saddle. Brom pulled the lasso with one loop and two tails from his saddle bag and tossed Dogwa one of the tails. Dogwa and Brom swooped in with the lasso stretched between them. The two slipped it over the beast’s massive fist that still gripped Salvo’s hook.

Dogwa wrapped the rope around his saddle horn and pulled tight. Skrull flexed his arm and pulled on the rope as hard as he could. Brom did not have a chance to wrap his around the horn and the rope pulled him off the back of his horse. On the other end, the rope smoked around Dogwa’s saddle horn and shredded his palms.

“Together,” Varro shouted, “at the same time.”

Skrull, still squinting his injured eye, roared and thrashed. Jorn and Margaret looped the beast’s right hand as Amir attempted to get a second loop over the left. Skrull yanked his hand out of range for Amir and pulled on the line around his right wrist with both hands just as Jorn wrapped it around his saddle horn.

Blinking, Brutus regained consciousness and slipped his helm back on before pushing the log off him. He saw Jorn’s horse struggling to keep the creature from pulling it toward his gnashing teeth. Brutus sprinted to the line hanging loose from Skrull’s left wrist. He grabbed it and pulled with all his might. Skrull was stretched under the tension; his arms opened wide.

Skrull tugged on the left line, burning the rope through Brutus’ hands. The giant quickly regained control and wrapped the line around his body. Jake readied his loop as he swooped behind the beast, slipping the lasso over its head.

He wrapped the line around his saddle horn and pulled Skrull into the trunk of a rather large pine. With the beast stretched against the tree, Amir and Varro rode to Skrull’s front. They dismounted and held their lances like pikes.

“This is not the end for me,” Skrull spat. “I have served my masters well. I have become immortal.”

“Enough talk,” Varro said as he plunged his lance into Skrull’s heart. Amir did the same. Skrull became quite still as he glared at Count Varro. His eyes, though still beastly, showed signs of a man behind them. A dying man. They withdrew their lances and Skrull’s blood spilled onto the ground. The monster let out a long exhale, and his body went limp, held up by the ropes.

#

The knights dragged Skrull’s body back to town by the ankles. Jake sat tall in his saddle, proud of their accomplishment and thanking the gods none of his comrades had been seriously harmed in the hunt. The sentries announced their arrival from afar and a crowd of townspeople gathered at the gate to welcome the victorious knights back. The crowd celebrated until the large hairy beast was close enough to view in detail. The muscular frame, its dagger-like claws, and the monstrous fangs came into view and the people silenced. Their joyous cheers turned to gasps of horror as they examined the creature.

The knights brought the body to the large doors of Sir Uric Valencia’s laboratory and dismounted. Brutus placed a rough-edged knife in his bleeding palm and cut some long, course hairs from Skrull’s chin.

“You can’t take those,” Uric protested with a step forward and an outstretched hand. “I need to study every inch of the...”

Brutus grunted and flared his chest. Uric stepped back again, diverting his eyes like a child after being scolded by a parent.

Governor Bradford emerged with his butler from the crowd, clapping his hands. “Excellent work, gentlemen. This will surely be included in the history books. I didn’t doubt your success for an instant.”

The knights remained silent. Count Varro stepped forward and the governor grabbed his hand shaking it violently.

“There are no words that can describe my gratitude to you and your men, Count.”

“There is no need,” Varro said humbly. “We were happy to rid the world of this monstrosity.”

“Please allow me to give your men a token of our thanks,” Bradford pleaded. “I insist the knights enjoy a day of merrymaking celebrating their victory and the safe return of all ventured forth.”

“Very well,” Varro agreed, “that sounds splendid. My knights have certainly earned it.”

“Excellent, beer at the tavern is at my expense,” Bradford said, clapping for the butler. “See that my private stock of wine and brandy is brought down as well for the brave Knights of Apollo.”

#

The crowd cheered and followed the knights to the tavern, shaking hands and slapping backs. The governor took the butler by the elbow and whispered in his ear, “Leave the Michnuag and Sladian bottles. Just bring the rubbish from the pantry and contact your man. I wish to have a private word with him.”

#

Brutus sipped from a mug as he wrapped his bleeding palms in snug bandages. His helm sat on the bar next to him with a new modification to the mask. Three patches of the coarse fur he had cut from the beast spiked downward from the iron chin.

“How are your ribs?” Jake asked, sitting on a stool next to him. The only reply he got was a grunt and a nod by the massive bearded man.

All around them, the party grew wild. The tavern flooded with music, dancing, and cheerful laughter. Amir gave each of them a hearty back slap and then sat down.

“Do you need another?” asked the innkeeper.

“Aye, one for me and another for my brothers in arms here.”

“Last one for me,” Jake said. “My bed is calling my name.”

“In that case,” Amir said with a chuckle, “put a nipple on his.”

The party raged on as Jake finished his pint and trekked across the room to the stairs. On his way, he noticed the group of sailors from the night they made port. The one Jake had punched out shot him an angry glare as he passed. Jake continued to bed.

The party downstairs lasted nearly all night. Loud laughter and calamitous clatters woke Jake several times. Only some knights had made it to bed, fell onto their sheets and into sleep immediately. Jorn, Brutus, and Amir must have passed out in the tavern among many other partygoers.

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