The full moon bathed the marshes in a silver glow lighting the way for Krassus and the Huntsman. Mist crept around their feet and above their heads catching moonbeams and throwing them back to the sky.
The rain had started falling several days ago, softly at first, resembling no more than a mist, and then abruptly escalating into nothing short of torrential. Fortunately, the downpour had subsided to a light sprinkle, making trudging through the wetlands bearable. Being born in the eastern desert, Krassus was having difficulty acclimating. The rain combined with the cold was not something he was used to and he labored to keep from feeling miserable. He had decided, though, that the climate change was healthy and would be beneficial in the grand scheme of things.
The Huntsman had not stopped bragging of his escapades since he had joined Krassus; from killing beasts and slaying men by the hundreds to bedding countless women, he would not. He began telling a story about a horned forest beast he had met last winter.
“You’ve told me this one already,” stated Krassus.
“No, this is a different one, I—”
“Stop talking,” replied Krassus.
He had found the Huntsman, or so he had called himself, in the Frog’s Nest Inn, the final stop before the marshes spread out into fifty leagues of moss, swamp, ruins and unspeakable monsters. It had occurred to Krassus that he hadn’t an inkling of an idea how to traverse the southern pass through the marshes. The Huntsman had been willing enough, though he could not have seen more than twenty summers, judging by the amount of bragging he had done. The coin that Krassus had agreed to pay would have tempted even the most apprehensive of travelers, but since the pair had set out from the Frog’s Nest the Huntsman had yammered ceaselessly about his exploits, leaving Krassus skeptical about the credibility of his new companion.
After a few steps the Huntsman started again, “A fortnight ago, I came upon a dark one, quite an experience, first of all—”
“What did I just say?” Krassus interrupted firmly.
Krassus slowed the pace. Through the mist, the moon reflected off the moss infested pools, painting the trees an eerie green. Reflections bounced off the branches and tall grass and played tricks with the shadows. In the distance, Krassus heard the croak of frogs and the quiet music of crickets. He smelled the air, thick with rain and soil and…
A massive shadow moved amongst the ruins in the distance.
“Dark ones…” said Krassus after a pause, keeping his eye on the ruins up ahead; “what was that you said?”
“You spoke of dark ones; what did you mean?” Krassus asked.
“Oh yes, um, people… people have seen strange creatures, but they dare not speak of them. They call them the ‘dark ones.’, foul beings, each stranger than the other, coming from some place they refer to as Blood Castle.”
“Arag…” Krassus said to himself.
“Who?” asked the Huntsman.
“Arag, the red king of the south, the banished king; who invoked the forbidden magic. Blood Castle is another name for the Red Castle.”
“Oh…” the Huntsman hesitated. “My uncle…I mean, we’ve met people traveling from that region. They say the dark started appearing more often, and with them, more people disappear more often. They say these creatures are not natural, that they are not from our land, that they are from beyond…”
Krassus stopped walking, looked at the Huntsman and raised an eyebrow “Beyond…? Where...?”
“Just beyond…I’m not really sure,” the Huntsman. The man finally silent for the first time in their journey.
Krassus continued on, slowly, keeping his eyes ahead. Arag had been an ally to Kael’s father. When Arag started experimenting in the dark arts and red magic he corrupted himself, making outlandish claims about “the new powers of the black magic” and “eternal life under the shadow of our master”. He became so delusional that Kael’s father was forced to shun him, banishing him to the south where he gathered followers and continued his practice of red magic and the dark arts.
In the infamous battle for Kourniak, Arag introduced his new powers, raising the dead and unleashing them on both Kael’s father’s army and the collection of southern clans that had rallied to his cause. Arag won the battle but his allies turned against him. At the climax of the battle, Kael’s father was killed by one of his own who had been raised as a dark creature by Arag’s magic. His death broke his army and scattered it to every corner of the land until Kael reunited them.
The rain sputtered out and the fog cleared, opening a clear, crisp sky smeared with stars and illuminated by a silver moon. Krassus inhaled deeply, savoring the freshness that the rain had left and sending a silent prayer to the gods that it had ended.
“Finally!” exclaimed the Huntsman too loudly, “I didn’t think it would ever stop. Are those ruins ahead? We should explore, my uncle once discovered—”
“Shh…” interrupted Krassus with a whisper. He stopped and crouched slowly, unsheathing his broadswords from his back. The Huntsman stopped as well and crouched next to Krassus, mirroring him.
Krassus’ eye was better than most. He had been watching the ruins keenly as the two had approached them. The shadow he noticed earlier had shifted, and the smell of brimstone grew more potent. The ruins stood a hundred steps away.
The Huntsman squinted, trying to see what his companion was seeing.
“What is it?” the Huntsman almost shouted.
Krassus silenced him with a quick gesture.
Four, fiery eyes snapped open as the shadow clawed its way to the top of a high ruined wall and spread its two massive fore-claws. The thing uttered a booming noise that sounded half growl, half gurgle, startling them both
“What in the name of the gods is that?” the Huntsman asked, his voice quivered despite himself. With trembling hands, he strung his bow.
Krassus ignored the question and instead said, “We’ll need to bait it.”
“Good idea,” said the Huntsman. He didn’t have an inkling of an idea what the warrior was talking about but he wasn’t about to argue his strategy in the face of such a monstrous creature. He nocked an arrow and was waiting for Krassus’ command when realization struck him.
“Wait, what…?” he started
The Huntsman found himself alone, in the middle of the field gaping at the giant thing crawling toward him on legs as big as trees trunks.
Bow strung and arrow nocked he froze, petrified. The beast’s four pointed legs slammed into the ground. As the shadow lumbered forward moon revealing a giant crab with a tail and stinger in the likeness of a scorpion that shot fire from its mouth. A creature that looked as if the dark god’s beyond had grown tired of creating conventional monsters.
“Gods save me,” the Huntsman muttered, breathless.
The following moments allowed him to muster enough courage to fire his arrow. The iron tip, pinged off the creatures shell with a spark and was lost in the darkness of the marsh. As he reached for another arrow, his quiver strap snapped and fell from his back. With shaking hands, he bent and took another shaft from the pile on the ground. He drew and loosed without bothering to aim, feathering the creature’s soft underbelly.
The creature reared on its hind legs, shrieking in pain. The Huntsman, found his own legs and turned from the monster, barreling in the opposite direction.
The creature lashed its head and spat long streams of fire as it tried to wrench the new attacker from its back. Krassus held on to the hilts of his broad swords that he had buried into the shell of the massive crab creature, his legs flailed beneath him as he scrambled to find purchase on the crab’s slick shell.
Krassus pulled one of his swords free from the shell. A dark, steaming ooze sprung from the wound as the crab creature howled again. Droplets fell from Krassus’ sword and sent a burning pain through his arm, as if he had been splashed by water from a boiling cauldron. The burn seared his skin forcing him to loosen his grip. As he did, the creature bucked and sent him over the top of its head to land in a puddle of mud and moss with a sickening thud.
The creature gurgled and spat a stream of liquid fire at the annoyance that had come from its back. The molten fluid spread over patches of marshland, hardening in some areas and creating thick clouds of steam where the water was deep. The thing lumbered forward ready to feast on its freshly charred kill but as the steam cleared it saw nothing but burnt ground.
“Aunaloth!” challenged Krassus from the top of a ruined column. The steam had been thick enough to evade the crab creature’s stampede so Krassus used it to gain a higher vantage point. He needed to retrieve the sword that was still stuck in the thing’s shell.
The aunaloth turned its head and fixed its four fiery eyes on its prey. It reared its hind-quarters and lashed at the wall with its massive scorpion-like tail. Krassus side-stepped and slashed, opening a gash in the Aunaloth’s tail that oozed blue venom. It drew closer to the column that Krassus had perched upon.
Krassus readied himself. The tail lashed at him once more. Krassus leapt and brought his sword in a downward cut with both hands, severing the stinger from the end of its tail and raining down gobs of thick blue venom on the crab’s back. The venom didn’t burn like the aunaloth’s blood, but it slickened its back like oil on marble.
Krassus landed on his feet which almost immediately slipped out from beneath him, slamming his face into the aunaloth’s shell. Stars flashed before his eyes and he heard a crunch as his nose broke. For a second he lay unmoving on the shell as gobs of venom continued to fall. He started to slide off the creatures back when he spied his blade—still buried to the hilt. He reached out before he could slide off and grasped the hilt as the aunaloth shrieked and bucked in pain.
With both swords in hand, warm blood dripping from his nose and slick blue venom covering his body, Krassus gathered himself to his knees and bore his other blade into the shell steadily making his way towards the beast’s head. Skewer by skewer, Krassus finally found himself at the neck. Grasping one hilt, he lifted the point of his blade above his head intent on plunging it into the aunaloth’s brain.
With the strength he had left, he brought the point of his sword straight down. The shock of the blow felt as if he had tried to pierce the steel wall of one of Kael’s siege towers, shooting a brutal vibration through his arm, loosening his grip and sending his blade clanging over the side of the shell.
The beast bucked again in pain and irritation, and Krassus caught a glimpse of his dropped sword as it stuck in the ground.
The aunaloth’s battered scorpion tail shot down at Krassus as if in attempt to swat him off. Krassus endured some of the attempts, but the swats weakened as the beast persisted.
At last, Krassus wrenched his second blade free of the beasts back and in one fluid motion, leapt, turned in the air and slashed as he dropped in front of the aunaloth’s face. His blade struck home, opening up two of the things four eyes on his way to the ground. Krassus’ feet hit the forgiving marshland and he rolled. The aunaloth shook its head and roared in agony as smoldering gobs of black blood fell to the ground.
Krassus seized his opportunity and sheared through The leg closest to him, spouting more of the seething black liquid and tilting the beast to one side. To avoid being crushed, Krassus rolled to the right and, with a swift hack, made work of the other leg. In a final roar of anguish, the aunaloth fell forward to the ground. The tortured beast opened its mouth in a final effort; the awful gurgling sound filled Krassus’ ears and he felt heat wash over his face. Determined to die fighting, he raised his sword and aimed it at the two eyes he had not already opened up. He charged the beast with a fierce battle cry.
An arrow pierced the mist, flying over Krassus’ elbow and lost itself in the chasm of the aunaloth’s fiery throat. The thing made a choking sound and a gurgled painfully. Krassus ceased his charge and threw himself to the side as the remaining two eyes exploded outwards. Its head bounced and roiled like an egg in boiling water. Steam poured from under its shell and from the openings in its head that might’ve been referred to as ears. It finally came to rest with a sigh that Krassus thought sounded something like relief.
Krassus looked to his back and saw the Huntsman; his eyes were closed, his hands were shaking and his bowstring was still vibrating. Krassus walked over to him, wiping his face of blood and blue venom and sheathing his sword. He clasped the boy’s shoulder who squinted eyes open. They immediately widened as he realized how close he was to the thing he had just killed.
“Easy,” assured Krassus. “The aunaloth is slain. You’ve done well.”
The boy looked, wide-eyed from Krassus to the massive steaming beast and shook his head.
“I…I ran…I did not know what to do…so I watched,” he mumbled to his feet. “I’m not really a Huntsman, my name is Willem. I took this bow from—”
Krassus stopped him with a wave of his hand, then thought.
“You were watching the entire time?” he inquired, more intrigued than irritated.
“Aye. Forgive me…” Willem replied, honestly.
Krassus considered this then asked, “From where?”
The Huntsman pointed to a cluster of rocks that had been not thirteen paces from where the dead aunaloth lay.
“Ha!” Krassus exclaimed and clapped the Huntsman on the back, almost sending him sprawling. He then made his way over to the massive beast, smelling and examining.
“You must’ve pierced the fire-sac,” said Krassus finally, “It’s cooked from the inside.”
“My eyes were closed,” replied the Huntsman wearily. Hiding from the battle, muscles tensed and eyes shut had drained him. He felt a stab of regret, most of that energy could have been used fighting instead of cowering.
Krassus raised his brow and suppressed a chuckle in his chest. If the boy could remain undetected and make a shot like that with his eyes closed he may yet have potential. He needed training but that would be easy if he was willing.
Krassus once more regarded the roasting head and body of the giant crab that looked identical to the crabs that had filled his nets before he became a part of Kael’s personal guard. He took a deep breath through his nose and no longer smelt brimstone and ash. Instead he was reminded of the sea and the markets of his hometown by the western sea. Life was simpler then…his native people…his family…but that was a lifetime ago, before the world had turned to dust.
Willem interrupted his musing, “What was that name that you called it?”
“Aunaloth? In my native tongue it means “fat crab,” more or less. It was my favorite dish.” He noticed the moon glint from a piece of metal stuck in the mud. He walked over and pulled his other sword from the ground. He eyed the great creature that had tried to make a meal of him. A grin spread on his face. With a proper washing and care, they could have rations to last them through the end of the year. Krassus doubted their journey would take that long.
“Suddenly I’m hungry. Come now, my friend the aunaloth slayer, we’ll camp here and I’ll tell you of the western sea. Tomorrow we continue, but for now, we feast.”
He wiped his blade of mud and pond water then prepared to shuck the biggest crab he’d ever seen.
Willem, the Huntsman slung his bow as he followed his companion. He felt a chill in the air, but this time he welcomed it. With steady hands, he unsheathed his hunting knife and went to work.