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Six Thegn Quean

Episode Four

by David Ulnar-Slew




DEDICATION

This one is for my Dad. He taught me how to be a good man and a good Dad to my daughter.



The Student Teaches

Ren had a job to do that day. His assistant was next to him; the boy had apprenticed with him for five years and had earned the right to be called that. He knew Katyln and Poke were nearby observing. They were reasonably stealthy but had agreed to take up positions where they could watch him and not move so he could work his craft. The big cat was hiding somewhere in this forest edge. It had no problem coming out on the flat land to grab livestock. though. He was guessing it was fairly big, judging by the animals that had been dragged away. The farmers were more than patient waiting for Katlyn to allow a break in training. He could have fixed this days ago. She felt his training was more important than his job. Now that would be proved wrong. If he could stalk the cat, he could show her that his skills would be important in saving the village.

He approached the small cave on his belly; the boy was behind and to his left, ready to feed him arrows. The gourd full of lamb's blood was sealed with wax. The big tree near the entrance was his target. The container went end over end and smashed on the tree. It made some noise, but more importantly, it smashed and spilled blood over the tree and surrounding ground. The results were almost immediate; the big cat stirred and started toward the entrance.

Dear Gods! It was huge even by his estimates. What was a monster like that doing around here? How did something like that even exist? He heard his assistant whimper. He signaled for silence and an arrow. His hand came back with one of his own made arrows. If he got off two shots before it was on him he would count himself lucky. The first shot had better count. Ren slowly and quietly rose to a knee while the beast sniffed at the tree. The string of the bow pulled back slowly so as to not give him away. He loosed. It turned at the last moment. The arrow went into the front shoulder. The cat let out a tremendous roar and charged. He reached back and the boy's training held as he was handed a second arrow which he loaded and let fly. Opposite leg shot. Again seeking an arrow he reached back and returned with another. Shot, in the rear flank. No time for another. Time to see if his blade skills had improved as much as he thought they had.

He drew his blade and went into the cat's attack because there was no running. He knew by this point that Katlyn and Poke were probably en route, but it would be concluded before their arrival. The boy was a decent fighter and if he found his second courage, he might just finish this beast if Ren wounded it badly enough.

The cat came in with a giant swipe of its claw. Ren blocked with his non-blade arm and felt flesh shred. Without truly thinking too long he went under the cat on instinct. His blade flew around on the cat's underside. He truly hoped that the arrow wounds, along with whatever he managed here was enough to give the others the advantage once he died.

The big feline backed away and leaned in to grasp him quickly. Its mouth went around his neck. He felt the large killing teeth press on his throat to tear and end his life. Then it stopped where it was. The animal went sideways, and in falling, almost snapped his neck just in that motion. Everything was still. His assistant was breathing so loud that Ren could hear him with his one ear that wasn't pressed to the ground.

"Dear Gods, Ren!" That was Katlyn's voice.

"Boy, help me get that thing's jaws off him." Poke pulled the boy along by the arm. The two of them pulled jaws apart till Ren could move his throat out.

He struggled to his feet. Two things were very quickly noteworthy. His left arm was sliced horribly from the claw. He saw tremendous amounts of blood, which made the second observation take a moment more. His left hand held one of the beast's ribs, which he had tugged out so his right could pierce the heart.

Katlyn approached him quietly. "How did you do that so deftly? I know some of the cuts, but you worked so quickly."

Ren was catching his breath. "Dear lady, I have been butchering and slaughtering my whole life. It is second nature to me. I just never had the means to access the inside that quickly before. Your lessons in blade work saved me."

"Nay. I taught you the cuts and thrusts, maybe, but your knowledge saved you today. I could have done some of what you did, but not all. Do you know man's parts as well as you know beast's?"

"Aye, mostly. The priest is the healer, but on the occasions when cutting needs to be done, I serve as surgeon. My master was thorough in his training of anatomy. He said when I was a boy, if man ever behaves as an animal, I should be ready to hunt him, as well."

Poke shook his head as he spoke. "Boy, you are almost an assassin, then. You just never got the martial training and worked with a blade in a combat sense. What was your master hunter's name?"

"His name was Benra. I had been considering him just lately, myself, oddly."

"How so?" The hunter's words had caused Poke to lean forward in interest. Katlyn seemed interested too.

"He was the only person I had seen with brown skin like that, till you folk brought those two sisters to our village."

Katlyn's mouth hung open a moment. "He looked like the twins? Just the skin color?"

"No, his face and eyes was similar. Bearing, hair color, there were many things reminiscent of him when I first saw your girls. They could have been related, if you ask me."

Katlyn turned and began to walk away. Poke looked at him." Ren I am not sure what this means, but I am sure it will be complicated. I just hope it helps us in some way. Boy, grab your master and help him back home. We will send some men out to get that thing. Everyone will want to see that, no doubt. Others will want to look in the cave."

The old soldier went to speak with Katlyn. The boy helped Ren for a few steps before he shook his head and walked on his own. The hunter was already binding his own arm.

What Lurks Beneath

They came over the hill at the end of the next day. They had been following the Eoten's trail, but another had been tracking him too, obviously seeing him by chance on the road, but possibly not getting the best look due to the weather in these parts the previous day. Everything was soaked. It made tracking easy, the signs of travel were everywhere in the mud. Once they crested the ridge, the suspicions were correct. There was a small group of men standing around a stone obelisk, staring at it intensely. The sisters made as if to slip off, Raz waved them still and they paused.

He whispered to the group. "They are useful in whatever they are about. They seem to be searching for something, and it is probably best to let them find it first and find out if it is protected."

The girls nodded. Snigin smirked jovially. Cammi took his hand in hers.

The five men were all staring, but one in particular was using his hand to feel the markings on the pillar. He might have been trying to deduce meaning or decode something. When he seemed satisfied with his thoughts, he pressed the markings in a quick combination. The ground nearby opened in a gaping hole. The men cheered and patted the figure on the back and shoulders. They grabbed what little gear they had set down, and went to scout the hole. They took precautions and investigated. After a few moments they took on a formation and ventured into the breach. After they had been down a while, Raz looked around at his companions to see whether they were ready to venture down to the pillar. He heard the twins snarl and turned to see the hole in the ground closing quickly.

"Don't mind it. If they opened it, so shall we. It is best not to follow too closely, anyway. Let them meet the Eoten and whatever else is under there first. We can let them be our scouts."

It was generally agreed that this was a good plan as they got under way. When they reached the pillar, it looked like the band had spent a good while camping and possibly studying the pillar. They must have stumbled across the men just as they solved the mystery of the pillar. Once again, fortune seemed to favor them.

The pillar was covered in markings which seemed almost familiar. They almost looked like the written language of the mid kingdom, but were just enough off that they did not seem to make sense. Raz recognized several of the symbols from the Ogrim Libraries back home. They were from ancient texts from when the elders had written Malik's words and had been unable to translate a word, so they used his original symbols. He could not quite make enough sense of it to see a pattern, though.

Snigin walked past him and pushed a series of five symbols similar to what the earlier band's leader had. The breach in the earth opened.

Cammi looked at him and spoke first, mostly because Raz was still stunned. "Did you just read that?"

Snigin looked slightly abashed and guilty. "No, I just see where the symbols are worn. I assume that is what the other man did. I just got it quicker." He walked over to the breach to look down inside and the girls followed.

Raz turned to Cammi. "Aye, quicker, alright. He was about thirteen hours quicker by my best guess. This camp looks like they spent at least half a day, if not more. He just read an ancient language fluently. Odd for a highwayman, is it not?"

"Aye, that it is. We have known him since we came to this land and did some banditry of our own to make ends meet. We had a dispute over territory. He and Grenda negotiated a truce, and we've worked together on occasion. He has always been a mysterious rogue. I don't think I ever even heard his men talk about his past. As far as they know, he was one of them, and then one day just took over when the previous leader left."

"Considerably interesting."

They followed to the hole in the earth. "Snigin, what is down there?"

"Well, big fellow, some stairs and a whole lot of darkness. Anyone have a torch?"

Cammi produced one from her backpack and went to work lighting it. Raz went to the entrance and sniffed. "The Eoten went down there a good time ago. If it is vast down below, he could have had almost a day to be prepared if anyone followed him. Waiting with something he considers important."

Lilith signed, 'Thing like him considers what important?'

"Exactly. A self serving, unbalanced, violent brute considers what worth running to for the sake of protecting or being protected? Weapon, or an entity more malevolent than he is?"

The torch was lit and Cammi went to the edge of the hole in the ground. They all looked down. The light just barely reached the first landing. The runes that covered the obelisk covered the walls of the passage in entirety as far as they could see. There was no sign of the previous group.

"And the second group were what, then?" Cammi inquired.

Snigin volunteered his opinion first. "I would say a very skilled and prepared bandit group who has avoided your horde and come across what they think is someone leading them to a well-built secret tomb which smacks of possible wealth. They need be no more than that."

Raz nodded to concur. "It seems most likely they are just free lance warriors or mercenaries turned bandit, who believe they have a lead on a tomb to raid. They are probably going to be regretful over that decision eventually. They cannot know what they followed in there, and we do not even know what he was after. This could all end in tears for them and us."

Eve looked at her sister and signed. 'Enough talk. Let's kill him, and anyone else in the way.'

Lilith signed agreement. They stalked into the hole and began down the stairs before Cammi even started down with the torch. She just shrugged at the men and followed. Raz and Snigin exchanged a glance of male solidarity which expressed the frustration of understanding women in general, but even more so the unique ones they were associated with.

The stairs leading down were exceptionally well kept. That would mean someone was here regularly to tend to them. This was concerning to Raz, especially. What he knew of Eoten did not normally have them doing hygienic menial labor. Either someone else was involved, which boded poorly, or the Eoten was beholden to something powerful enough to do something very out of character. If it did, it would do so out of fear, as they had a very poor sense of respect.

They had walked down for what seemed an extensive amount of time to be descending. This was a very meticulously deep tomb. The time and effort which it must have required spoke of royalty, or entrapment of someone or thing. He sincerely hoped it was the catacombs of some long forgotten royals, full of gold that the greedy Eoten wanted to hoard for himself. He had a sinking feeling that was not the case, though. A large double door was at the bottom landing. It had been locked, from the outside, as if to keep something in. The previous group had unlocked it quite nimbly without doing damage. Again, that showed their skill and intelligence in this endeavor; perhaps they might best the Eoten. In that case his recommendation would be to just leave them to their spoils, unless something down here should not see the light of day. Then perhaps they would need to intercede. The door was left unlocked and free to move. This was likely so that if they had to make a hasty departure, they would not be delayed. Again, smart fellows.

Cammi swung it open. The corridor unfolded into the darkness. None of them saw an end or a cross passage. The twins went forward side by side. Snigin followed them. Cammi went in the middle, with the light held high. Raz brought up the rear.

The walk through the dark was quiet and slow. The wall runes never stopped. The sheer amount of work was the work of extreme wealth, either gold or slaves. Nothing this elaborate could have been accomplished without royal resources. They finally came to a cross passage. All the directions seemed generally similar. Lilith turned toward the others and stared at Raz. She signed. 'Smell him? Which way?'

Raz inhaled deeply. He pointed left. There was something else in the air. It smelled of the eugenics labs of home, chemical and alchemical. That was disturbing. Science like that would mean Masters, and they had trouble enough without running afoul of the Masters, even defunct experiments. Also, he paused and shuddered at what the Masters would deem to bury.

The twins went down the side passage, skulking in an almost feline way. If something did attack down that passage it may just over shoot into the rest of them and the girls would be behind or the side of it. They moved closer to the ground than the ceiling.

They had walked easily another quarter of a league before they saw some light from an arch in the distance. They also could just hear vague sounds of shouts, cries, and orders. The twins took off at a sprint. Snigin followed as quickly as he could. Cammi looked at Raz and followed as well. The Ogrim picked up his pace, but cautiously, not liking to run into the possible bedlam in case it was a trap or just a chaotic danger overall. When he arrived at the arch, Cammi and Snigin stood there. The twins were trying to get to the Eoten, which was fighting the five of the robber band, and most likely winning. One of them lay on the ground holding his leg. Another had been knocked into a nearby stone sarcophagus and was trying to regain his footing. The remaining three were trying to surround him, and had scored a few superficial wounds. He saw the twins speeding toward him, and redoubled his efforts to frantically smash the three around him. The Eoten knocked all three off their feet just as the twins got near. They swiped at him while he blocked their blades with his forearms, acquiring cut after cut. The giant shuffled to the side and went to the sarcophagus. It was then that Raz saw that the lid was slightly ajar.

"Do not let him get to the burial box." The Ogrim sped as quickly as he could, knowing he would not be in time.

The giant knocked the lid off and screamed words in two voices; scientists would say instructions, mystics would say spell. The command was foreign and short. He followed it with, "I Kre command it in place of the Master. Rise, Nek."

Raz had no idea what he had feared. That word, though, caught him by surprise. It chilled his blood. That was not possible. That was a story used to scare children of the Ogrim and any other race beholden to the Masters. It was not possible. Nek did not exist. Yet it rose from the sarcophagus, human sized yet well muscled and tall. It was black skinned, but not the black of obsidian, the black of rot and rigor. Yet it somehow was full bodied. When it rose it brought with it the smell of the grave. It lashed out at the first thing in front of it, which was Eve followed closely by Lilith. Any others could not have moved quickly enough, and would have been sliced by its nails which looked grave-grown and jaggedly sharp. The Eoten ran around the back side of the box and slipped by Raz, who had advanced. He bowled over Cammi, as she was unprepared and staring at the new monstrosity. The twins were more prepared after ducking the foul creature's swipe. They took off after their target, and Snigin followed. The other band had regrouped and the downed two had formed up with the other three. They stood at the ready staring.

The Nek was climbing out of the grave box. Raz looked at the band of strangers. "If you want to live to get out, we need to end that thing."

The one who had figured out the code nodded, confirming his leadership. "Do as he says, lads. That thing must be worth something dead, and we ain't getting it out of here alive."

One of his band replied to him. "Aye, Eker, you know best. Kill it, boys." They charged in before Raz could speak further.

They surrounded it, with Eker and his obvious second flanking in a pincer movement. They had stabbed it ten times between the lot of them before the thing even reacted. They were well drilled and skilled. That was not going to be enough today. The creature reached the man in the middle and tore his chest with jagged nails, and the man dropped with agony. It showed no sign of discomfort from the initial stab wounds, nor from the continued stabbing of the remaining men. It swiped at the next nearest with duplicate results. It was able to close expertly, as it had no need to dodge, or fear of injury. The Nek turned and grabbed the last man from the middle and did what Raz feared to see the most. It held him close with one hand and smashed his skull with the free hand. Dead mouth sealed over the hole in the skull and an audible slurp echoed across the room. In the moment it feasted, Eker and his second ran it through repeatedly and slashed wildly. Cammi gasped. She had come even with Raz, ready to fight. In the moment Raz had looked away he had not seen the two injured men begin to convulse wildly. The Nek turned toward Eker and his lieutenant, licking brain matter off its lips. "Serve me."

Eker spoke what he thought were brave warrior words. "I would rather die."

The thing then added. "That, too." The men on the ground lurched up and went to grab the two facing the Nek. Once they had gained a hold, blades now being useless against them, the Nek paused momentarily. He looked over at Raz and Cammi. It crinkled its dead nose and declared, "Purple Uger".

Raz corrected the thing. "I am Ogrim. Not Uger." The look of indignant judgment on his face was obviously confusing Cammi and was going to require an explanation later.

The thing took its time scratching its captives and licked their wounds for good measure. This more surgical infection brought the effect on the remaining two at easily double the speed. Now there were five creatures: the Nek, and the four it made. This was not good.

Cammi whispered. "What do we do?"

Raz said with less confidence than usual, "I think I know, but obviously I have never seen it done before."

"Oh."

The Nek commanded his minions. "Kill them. Tear them apart. I want pieces." The dead came forward.

The Chase

Kre had a head start but it was declining. How were those human girls running through the dark without slowing or stumbling? He could her them getting closer. Filthy Shen. Yet they acted feral as well. Why would Shen do that? His mind wandered back to a time years ago when he and his current pets ambushed those Shen looking for him and the Nek. He had lost two children then, and assumed they died. Could these be those Shen girls? Could that even be possible? Shen girls in the company of Ogrim, dressed as Thegns. It was not possible. He ran harder, just in case destiny pursued along with the insane bitches.

#

Lilith and Eve gained on him with every moment. They could see him just barely in the distance. Something at the edge of their consciousness drove them harder and harder. They were almost on him at the cross tunnel. He turned down the tunnel that they had ignored when they turned to follow his scent earlier. He wasn't headed to the entrance. He ran to something else then. Snigin was behind them just barely keeping them in sight but neither girl had any intention of slowing. They saw Kre push through a door and some reaction caused the room to fill with light as he entered; it might as well be sorcery, for all the girls cared. As they came through the door they were gobsmacked for the first time in their adult lives. They paused and stood in shock in the doorway. The room was filled with weapons and clothes, pots, tools, tents, many things a Shen family band would bring with them on an extended mission. The things their family had brought with them when they took on the holy mission of finding a courier of the Masters, who was rumored to be carrying the ultimate abomination. Even though it was probably a myth. An entire family had gone to ensure it was not true. An entire family had died at the hands of a monster and his pets when they were taken unaware one night. Now that monster, who neither girl could completely recall, the thing that brought the dire wolves, it was standing there with their father's sword in one hand. The other grubby vile hand held one of their mother's hooks. The hooks that Eve could just recall enough to forge and practice relentlessly with for most of her life.

There was going to be no need of unguent to produce rage. The twins did not need to speak. They just shook off their shock and charged.

Kre knew when they stopped in the doorway these were his lost Shen girls. "I saved all this for you. It is yours." His other head said, "We didn't do it. We just found this stuff."

As they closed with him he knew it was not going to work. He thrashed out with the weapons crudely. They were just not there whenever he swung. They were like a fog when he tried to hit them, there when the swing started but never there for it to land. They hit him all over keeping him off balance. It was like one person attacking him from two directions, each strike complimented the others like one mind was directing two bodies. It seemed superior to his two minds in one. Eventually he grew tired of swinging, tired of trying to block, tired of looking in two directions at once. Lilith sliced him across the back and brought him to his knees and then smashed him in the gut with the bladed mace. Eve was around his back so quickly, she sunk the hooks into his eye sockets, one for each head. He dropped the hook he had wielded but he started to bring the sword up to make a last ditch swipe at them. He felt Lilith's mace smash his forearm. She hit him again in the torso as her sister pulled the hooks back exposing his necks. He felt her pull the sword from his hand. The blade cut his overexposed right neck like paper, not stopping for spine for a moment. It performed like a Shen blade should. His left head cried out. Eve shook the severed head off her hook.

Kre was alone in his thoughts for the first time ever. He could not sense the other mind. As much as he hated it, the absence was devastating. It was as if he was alone in the entirety of existence.

"Please kill me." Eve's free hook came around through his remaining eye socket.

Eve leaned into his ear and spoke. "No."

Lilith leaned into the other side. "Suffer."

Lilith took the sword and hamstrung him. Eve pulled the hooks out and tore viciously at his shoulders pulling and snapping tendon. She let him drop.

He made little sobbing noises which were muffled as his remaining mouth was pressed against the floor. Snigin had arrived at the door to see the finale of the horrific battle. He walked over to the girls. They just stared at the weeping form on the ground.

Snigin could not help himself. "I bet you wished you had chosen differently now, giant."

Through the weeping they heard him reply. "No, I just wish it had been him to suffer, and me to die."

The three turned and started back toward the others.

Bring Forth the Dead

The newly made minions advanced. The door was behind them, but not directly. Raz and Cammi were faced with an unwieldy choice. Fight these monstrosities, or run, and have them at their back. Both the Ogrim had not feared much over the course of their lives, they both looked visibly nervous now.

"Raz, will we be like them, walking dead?"

"I don't know. I hope not. When I read of them it said to remove the head. Neither of us has a blade." The two had both been the kind of fighter to rely on blunt force of which they always excelled at generating.

She took out her cestus, he just clinched his giant fists tightly enough to make an audible noise. "Perhaps if the head is properly smashed it still produces the same result?"

"Love, that may be an option for us, even if for no other."

Then the dead things were upon them. They were scratched almost immediately and felt no different. If the Nek was surprised by this, it did not betray it in its expression. The large duo stood shoulder to shoulder in a wedge to best avoid flanking as best as they could. Raz got lucky early on and got a hand hold on one of the lesser creatures that had been a follower of Eker. He tore its head from its shoulders. It fell to the ground and shriveled, becoming desiccated, as if all moisture had left it in a second after the decapitation. Cammi reached for one near her hoping to duplicate the effort and was ravaged by newly grown nails across her arm. The creatures were fast turning into individual copies of their master, the skin growing darker, nails longer, and eyes more rheumy by the moment. The nek minor, for that was now what they truly were, were going to tear them to pieces before they could kill all of them.

Their master grew frustrated that it was not already over. "Fools, use your weapons. You have everything at your disposal you did before, just now more so, because you live as nek!"

At this prompt they reached down and drew steel swords and daggers from their belts. This was now even worse. The Ogrim pair was in trouble enough fighting them as wild creatures. These things could fight as men and ignore wounds that would cripple and kill other men. They also increased their number with infection somehow, though only the Nek master had done that thus far. Lastly they would seem to not want for food after battle, if they ate as the Nek did. It was ghoulish and an affront to the gods.

The nek swiped and clawed. They did not hit every time, but every tenth time or so a blow landed. Eventually it would prove to be too much as the duo took blows trying to maneuver around to get a head shot while not leaving themselves open to a flanked attack. Raz saw tears in Cammi's eyes peripherally. This angered him and strengthened his resolve. He stepped forward a bit more than on previous attacks and was rewarded by smashing his fist like a hammer down on the middle minion's head so violently that it drove it down into the body as it squished the contents. That one dropped but did not whither. Out of the fight but not gone. The Eker nek slashed with its sword down his chest making a formidable wound before he could step back. Raz retreated and fell back against Cammi for support momentarily. As he recovered his footing he saw the Nek master turn back toward the sarcophagus.

The dead creature hissed. "Enough, I will end this." It drew two blades from the tomb, which seemed sword till half way up the blade, then turned to scythe-like blades. They were as black as the creature's skin was, and seemed wrong to glance at. The ghoulish thing turned toward the melee and advanced at incredible speed. The death smell of him gained power as it drew close. The remaining two minions parted to the sides to allow their master into the fray.

The unique blades swung in a frenzy scoring cuts over arms put up in defense on both the duo of Ogrim. The creature struck Raz in the stomach with the rounded end of the blade which caused him to drop to his knees. The Nek drew the blades back for the killing blow.

Cammi jumped over Raz, knocking him off his knees and away to the side. "No!"

The curved blades came down. The sword of a Shen warrior stopped the one and the hooks of a Shen war priestess the other. The twins had entered the room and done this as fast or faster than the Nek master had moved earlier. Its face looked nonplussed for the first time in the encounter.

It pulled the blades back and swung again, while demanding its minions aid the fight. "Kill them, kill them all."

The minions stepped forward to block the sisters, and engaged them. The Nek retreated to the other side of the chamber. It began manipulating the symbols on the wall in a fashion similar to the pillar entrance outside the tomb. A door sprung open. It turned its head over its shoulder and hissed.

"You, Eker, come. Other servant, jump on them now."

They both obeyed instantly. The Eker thing turned and ran to its master, the other pushed itself at them relentlessly and carelessly, lurching and blocking their way. The twins kept it at bay with their blades. When the Eker creature reached the Nek, it turned a dial to start the door closing. As it neared fully closed they heard it shout from the passage. "Imkacs."

The remaining corpse thing began to bloat horrifically and distend.

Lilith spoke. "Shoulk."

The creature exploded, spreading viscera everywhere. Not a drop landed on anyone near the twins or anything they owned. Cammi looked up at them. They seemed slightly different, beyond the fact that Lilith now had an exquisite sword, and Eve had much nicer hooked blades which were covered in runes.

"Did you just speak? I mean... Raz is hurt. We need to get him to help. Where is Snigin?"

Lilith pointed down the corridor with her sword in seeming response to the inquiry about Snigin. Eve pulled Cammi up to her feet with surprising strength and determination even for her. She glared down at the Ogrim male on the ground bleeding and split open on the abdomen. She pushed back next to him and took a step back. She dropped the hooks, which were on cords attached to her wrists, and spoke.

"Huaul."

A blinding light flashed and washed over the Ogrim. When it cleared Cammi was free of wounds on her extremities as was Raz. More incredibly the Ogrim lay there on the ground looking at his midsection along with Cammi. They were both staring in awe at the fresh pink scar on his abdomen.

Eve's knees buckled and Lilith leaned in and caught her. After a moment Eve waved her away and resorted to hand-speak. 'Enough. I am fine.'

Lilith nodded. She gestured down the corridor with her sword and signed. 'Come help us carry some of what we found. We need it.' With that the twins walked back down the hall leaving the Ogrim duo staring in disbelief after them.

Hidden Treasure

Poke had taken two sturdy lads back with him to the cave. One of them, Tril, had actually grown up in this village. His mom had passed but his father still worked leather in the shop now run by his brother. The other fellow, Mus, had grown up not too far away on a homestead that got raided after he left, and was gone now. He didn't talk about his family much. Everyone that knew him just assumed they may have died in the raid. Both were good soldiers and excellent picks for this little excursion. They took one of the larger wagons so they didn't have to walk, or tire three different horses. The one they set to pulling was a big bugger, though. Goliath was a draft horse they borrowed from the village miller. They would bring back the cat's corpse and anything else worthwhile from the lair. If the cat had caught bigger prey there could be lots of bones. Tools and weapons could be made with those, for sure.

Poke held the reins in his callused hands tightly. Just because they killed that cat didn't mean the entire area was safe. It paid to be cautious. "When we get there, you boys just stand by and listen good. That was a big-looking cave and we don't need to be separated. We can do this by the book, and it won't take too long."

"Aye, Pokey. We hear ya." Tril had been with him a long time and knew that this far out of town by themselves, familiarity was fine with the warrant officer. The old man was like their dad, or maybe an uncle, at least. What they gave away in formality in private was made up for in loyalty. The boys would stand by the grisly old veteran against just about anything. The fact that the old man threw in with the commander was most of the reason that the men went with him, too.

Mus was packing a pipe. He had a coal from a fire back at the village, in a special little tin he carried to light his smoke. "What you think is there in that cave, Poke?"

"Old bones, I reckon. Probably that, maybe some antlers. We could probably be better off for arrows, spears, and traps for looting it. The cat is still fresh, no doubt; maybe some meat there. The skin of that thing will definitely make a cloak or a rug. Don't know, really, till we get there. Just don't go running in. We got to be careful."

"Aye," the boys echoed. They knew the older fellow was cautious, but he was also an old fellow, so there was that, then.

They left the road, and there was plenty of clear room to slowly maneuver the cart between the trees if they went slow. Goliath was a good animal and listened to his instruction well. The cave was just over to the west a bit more. Poke could just about see where the cat should be. It came into view as he circumvented a large old tree. Only there was something with it, skinning it. He was the size of a child, but there the similarities ended. It was rat faced, or maybe a bit lizard faced. He was blue, nowhere near the color of the Ogrim's color. It was an azure which would have been comely on cloth, but looked sickly and queer on a living thing. It startled when the wagon came into view. It had been snacking on raw cougar meat as it removed the skin. It looked up at Poke and hissed sibilantly. The little creature turned and ran into the forest.

Tril called out to it. "Hey you, stop, in the name of the guard."

Mus elbowed him in the ribs. "I don't think he is a tax paying member of the kingdom."

Poke was trying not to laugh as he climbed down out of the wagon and tied off the horse to a sturdy tree.

He turned to the younger soldiers. "You chase him if you want. I figure he knows where he is going, and I don't, so he has the advantage."

Tril and Mus shook their heads. They knew that he was right, but still, their instincts said to chase the creature. It was different, and different was dangerous nowadays. If the warrant officer thought it was a bad idea though, they would stay put. He was more often right than wrong.

Tril looked down at the cat's corpse. "Don't know that I really want to eat any of this, now that that thing has had its mouth on it."

Mus nodded in agreement. "Whatever it was we saw, it didn't look clean. It looked kinda ratty, didn't it?"

Poke laughed at them. "Just finish getting that skin off and cut up the meat. Throw it in that chest full of salt, and don't forget to rub it down with the salt; cover it up good. You might not eat it, but others will. A good fire cleans anything."

The boys went to work and did as they were told. Both were country boys, so they knew what they were doing, and made short work of it. Once they had the meat packed up and salted properly, they cleaned up and stored the pelt in a locked box.

Poke looked around a bit and found evidence that the little humanoid had been at the location for a little while, scouting around. "Boys, I can't be sure that the little thing we saw isn't coming back. I don't feel like having him steal our wagon and gear while we are wandering around that cave. One of you is gonna have to do wagon duty."

Guarding a wagon was a hash. You had the safety of not doing the exploring, and you got to sit up and rest. On the other hand, you didn't get to see what was happening, and only got to hear about the action afterwards. Neither wanted to guard the wagon this time, as they had had plenty of rest at the village lately. Nobody needed cushy duty. Both were anxious to see what was in the cave, though. They paused too long so their senior took the choice away.

"Tril, wagon. Mus, with me."

Tril looked dejected, but not overly. A good soldier never got too upset about any rest. You never knew when your next chance was coming, so you made the best of it. Mus smirked, and followed Poke toward the entrance.

The first obvious defense the cave put up was the stench. It made the eyes water. Mus actually gagged, and made an obvious effort to swallow back down what had come up. Poke seemed disturbed, but did not hesitate at all. Once they neared the entrance, they saw something that was ingenious. There was a groove carved into the rock over a small shelf, which was angled so the wind was gathered to blow over the shelf, then funneled back outward. The shelf had chunks of rancid meat, fresh fecal matter, and some kind of fungus on it. The effect was obvious, anyone coming toward the cave was bombarded by the cumulative smell of the vile debris. It was carved in a way that it was nearly impossible for the smell to blow back into the cave, yet even the slightest breeze mounted a formidable defense to anyone drawing near. It was brilliant. It was also most definitely not the work of a wild animal. That meant someone or something intelligent also used this cave. Could it have been the little blue creature with the rat face? Possibly. Something told Poke it wasn't so, just a feeling. It might be prudent to advance with caution. This situation felt nefarious.

"Boy, stay behind me. Stop when I stop. Do exactly as you are told. I suspect traps worse than this offal and shite are in front of us."

Mus nodded. "Aye, warrant officer." That he kept it brief and brought rank into it was a sign he understood the severity of the order. Mus was a good fella, but he was also a good soldier, and knew when his life may depend on good military order. He would mind what the more experienced hand had to say because he liked to keep breathing, and Poke would ensure it happened, more than likely.

Poke took out his sword and began tapping things around in front of him. What he investigated and what he ignored would have only been obvious to someone who had some experience with booby-traps. It took a suspicious mind to avoid traps laid by a devious mind. There were fewer things more suspicious and devious than a soldier who lived to old age.

"Stop." Poke pressed his hand back to ensure his command was followed. He stuck his sword out at waist height. "Move back three paces." Mus did, and Poke backed up as well, then dropped the blade of his sword cutting a near invisible tripwire. A sturdy branch covered with sharpened stakes flipped out of a camouflaged groove in the wall. It missed Poke by inches. If he had been closer it would have driven the stakes into his gut. He cut down on the branch close to the wall and cleaved it out of the way. "Would have taken a fair bit of strength to set that in place. That rules out our little friend out there."

They continued on with Poke in the lead, carefully scanning everything around them. The cave tunnel opened up to a large cavern. Inside was an area where the cat had obviously taken kills on a flat area to the left. Most of the area, though, was filled with an assortment of weapons and various useful or valuable things. There was a living area with a straw mattress, a table and chair. All of them were quite large. Farther away, there was a small straw mattress in a corner. In between the two was a trunk full of books and maps.

Poke turned toward Mus. "I think this would be where the Eoten lives, and my guess is the little fiend outside stays here as well. The cat must have been a pet. So, where then is the horrid giant? Perhaps we should go back to the wagon."

Mus looked apprehensive.

"Aye." He turned to run back the way they came.

Poke shouted to him horrified. "No, don't run." It was too late. Some kind of pressure switch or other thing must have cocked the trap set when they passed to go in. The branch full of spikes swung at head height. Mus got a face full of death.

"Gah. Boy, you listen till the end, not till the shite gets deep." Poke walked slowly to the man and pulled him off the spikes. He put him on the ground and made a quick religious gesture, then hoisted the body and started out slowly prodding with his sword as he went.

The old man came out of the cave and saw Tril staring out into the woods. "Ayah. Get over here and help me with him."

The young soldier jumped down from the wagon still looking off into the trees. "Is he hurt?"

"Dead."

"What? How..."

"Didn't listen. Got scared and ran, afore I could tell him what to do. Got poked in the brain by a booby-trap. Didn't suffer; dead quick. That cave is probably the Eoten's lair. That little one creeping around lives there too. The cat was with them."

The younger man took his comrades body from his officer. He hesitated slightly but death was common enough in the military and the farm lands that this wasn't the first body he had to handle. Mus was a good one, but everyone died, some sooner, some later. The only thing you could do to go later is try to be bright enough and tough enough to dodge death when it came early. "What else is in there, Pokey?"

"Weapons, some valuables, books. Worth hauling out, but there is still probably traps, and now it's just us two. Also that little thing is still around here somewhere."

"Aye," agreed Tril. "He has been circling around the cave watching me from afar, best I can tell. I can't quite get a fix on him, but he is out there."

The senior soldier looked at Tril with a slight wink, barely noticeable even to the junior man who was right across from him. "We best be going then, too dangerous. We will get a bunch of fellas and come right back to clear out the good stuff. Come on, then."

Poke untied the horse and the two men jumped up into the wagon. They started off the way they came into the clearing.

#

Ugle watched the men pack up and leave. One of them was dead from the traps he designed for Kre. Good riddance. Filthy things, humans. They killed the kitty, the sweet, delicious kitty. Then they stole all that good food, on top of it. Now they were going to get more of their filthy kind to steal all the stuff he and Kre stole. Kre wasn't here to protect the stuff, so he had to move the good stuff out of there before they got back. He left his hiding place once they were gone for a few minutes. He would start with the books. The books had important information in them ... the maps too. One of the maps had their other lairs marked off. One of them even marked off the crypt where the Master's prize possession was.

He crept carefully out of the forest. His little head shook as he saw the tunnel to the cave. There weren't many traps left un-tripped now that those clods went up and down his tunnel. He needed Kre to reset those branches; they were immense, and too much for him. Reaching around here and there, he disabled the remaining traps so he could get in and out quickly to hide as much of this stuff as possible. The traps could always be reset quickly before he left the final time, if he judged correctly on the time it took to go back and forth to the village.

Scooping an armful of maps out of the chest, he hurried down the tunnel. He would have to hide these out in the forest till the men were done violating his home. He stepped into the daylight. There was just enough time to think about how sneaky and treacherous humans were before the pommel of Poke's sword hit him in the back of the head and everything went black.


Coming soon ... Episode 5


Copyright 2015, David Ulnar-Slew

Bio: David Ulnar-Slew was born in Innsmouth, MA, to Dutch immigrant parents of the famous Diepeen family, grew up in Newburyport, MA, and moved to an undisclosed location in the woods of VT in 2010. For ten years he taught Dark Magic to cannibal dwarves in the American Southwest. His first book, "Possible Flash Damage" is what he calls, "the beginning of Humankind's indoctrination into the ways the Elder Gods want us to think."

The truth:

David Ulnar-Slew is the nom-de-plume of Ed Sullivan. He is the former flash fiction editor at Aphelion: The Webzine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Editor-in-Chief at Cheapjack Pulp. He needs a pseudonym because his given name is not terribly good for him in terms of search engine placement.

He would also be pleased if you were to visit:

http://www.cheapjackpulp.com

E-mail: David Ulnar-Slew

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