Knives flew through the air, blacker than the night sky and sharper than a rhoa’s bite. The bone-cruncher dropped as the blades made a pincushion of its hide, the bear-beast’s head colliding with the cobblestone path before its legs even stopped moving; it slid to a satisfying stop just a few feet in front of Des, grinding dust and rock from the ground and causing him to cough at the unwelcome cloud.
“That-” He sneezed twice, the furious motion causing a sharp pain in his chest. “That was my kill you templar-fucking cur”.
“Whatever,” Ash replied, stalking out of the undergrowth. He flicked his hand, the virtue gem in his glove glowed brightly with a rapturous green as it activated again, and the black knives embedded beneath the creature’s thick brown fur vanished, winking out of existence before Des’s eyes. A split-second later Ash’s belt lit up, a flurry of starlight announcing the return of the knives to their individual sheaths. “If you had any sort of real power if you could swing a sword or cast a spell, then maybe you’d get to the bounties before I did”. Des clenched his fists. He’d been following the trail of the bone-cruncher for days, and Ash had beaten him to it by inches. More than anything he wanted to turn away and get as much distance as possible between him and the wretched trickster. He was about to do just that until he felt yet another pang of pain from his stomach.
“Come on Ash, we’ve both got to eat. Just split it,” Des offered. The pang became a groan which became a protest, loud enough that he was sure Ash could hear it. Ash hummed loudly.
“Hmm. Pass up the opportunity to feast like a king, so that we can both eat like poorly misers? I think not”. He smiled, the same wickedly infuriating smile that made Des question why he hadn’t yet punched the sod’s teeth in. Ash sat down cross-legged, setting his pack down beside the fallen bear-beast as he did. A second later he upended the entire pack and dumped out a coil of rope that must’ve been twenty or even thirty feet long.
“You’re going to hogtie that thing-” Des gestured at the dead bear-beast dramatically. It was twice as long as a man laying down, and half a head taller than the same man standing up. “-and drag it all the way back to the encampment alone?” he asked. “Wouldn’t that part go easier with just a bit of help?”
Ash stopped uncoiling the rope for a moment, staring at the deceased bear-beast, the much feared ‘bone-cruncher’. It was the only bounty on offer this week, and as such the exiles of the forest camp had been hunting it to the exclusion of everything else. For a moment Des wondered if Ash was simply pretending to entertain the suggestion, looking to get a rise out of him, but then Ash spoke again, reluctance seeping through his words.
“Give you an eighth for the assist,” he murmured.
“Half - I found the bloody thing,” Des protested.
“A quarter or I carry it myself”.
“Fine”. Des glared at Ash for a second before striding over to help bind the beast’s body. The two made slow work of the binding, and by the time they had finished securing the beast into a draggable harness the first of the rot-flies had begun to probe the air surrounding the beast’s body.
“Corruption everywhere,” Des whistled. “Every time I see it, it still gives me the heebies”.
“Uh-huh,” Ash said, hoisting one of the longer ends of the rope over his shoulder.
“Don’t it for you?”
“It’s just how it is. You gonna grab that?” Ash nodded toward the second of the long-ropes, a scowl on his face. Des huffed and grabbed the rope, pulling it taut over his shoulder. With a combined heave, the two managed to shift the bear-beast’s corpse, pulling it behind them as they marched slowly down the stone path leading to the forest encampment.
“You know it wouldn’t kill you to have a conversation, make a friend,” Des grumbled. He huffed and exhaled loudly, his voice already heavy from the exertion of pulling the bone-cruncher.
“Got enough friends”.
“Fuck have you,” Des replied, laughing as the trickster scowled at him and then the ground a moment later. “Years and I ain’t never seen you get to know anyone. Look at me, I at least got Dena.”
“Friends-” Ash spat on the ground. “A friend will get you killed out here”.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Des declared, feeling the sweat on his brow building. “People gotta look out for each other out here, it’s the only way to get by”.
“No, really man, if you don’t-”
“Quiet” Ash snapped. “Listen”.
Des stopped, letting the rope fall slack. A man was yelling in the distance somewhere on the road ahead of them, though he was too far away to make out his calls.
“What’s that?” Des asked, turning to face Ash. The trickster’s face had lost its colour, a paleness settling over him.
“Blooddrinker,” Ash whispered. Des swallowed, suddenly hearing the man’s cries as clearly as he had heard the trickster standing next to him.
“Blooddrinker-help me! Blooddrinker!” The stranger's voice was growing, headed in their direction. Des could only presume the man was fleeing from the Blooddrinker, the worst of the exiles that had lost their mind, mad rogues, that helped make the Phrecian forest more merciless than it already was. The marauder stalked the forest and killed anyone who was unlucky enough to be caught alone.
“We have to help him,” Des said, turning to Ash.
“What!?” Ash yelled, his eyes wide. “N-no, we need to get away from here, now!”
“We can help him-” Des replied. “-we have to do something!” In the distance he could vaguely make out the shadow of a man running down the same stone-brick path they’d been travelling.
“No,” Ash said, his voice firm. “I’m hiding, you do whatever you want”. He turned toward a thicket of trees and tall bushes that crested the edge of a nearby river, dashing into them without a moment’s hesitation.
The figure on the horizon was growing in size. A second, taller, figure had appeared further behind it. Des hesitated. He was no match for the Blooddrinker, certainly not alone. He glanced toward the thicket that Ash had run into and felt his feet spur him away from the road.
Solaris forgive me. As he pushed his way through the nest of tangled branches and foliage he found Ash crouched between a thick copse of trees.
“Saw sense then,” Ash murmured.
“Quiet,” Des said, his voice sharp. Shame burnt a hole in his chest. Hidden within the trees Des could see a small sliver of the road, the bone-cruncher’s corpse standing out at its edge. The two exiles hid in silence as the bellowing man drew closer, and as his cries became more frantic. When at last Des thought the man’s howls would break his spirit and drive him mad, the man staggered into view, an old man with a knotted grey beard and bare feet, dressed in only a white long-shirt marred with streaks of vibrant red blood. He took a few haggard steps, stopping just short of the bone-cruncher’s corpse, and turned, wheezing and sobbing all at once.
“No-” he croaked, his words barely audible from the road. A monstrously tall Karui man followed him, taking slow and methodical steps.
The marauding exile towered over his victim, the top of the old man’s head barely reaching the bottom of Blooddrinker’s throat. His bare muscular chest was marked with blood-red tribal tattoos that spiralled from his neck to his waist, obscured only by a macabre collection of burnt bones fixed into some mocking imitation of a man’s ribcage. Around his neck hung yet more blackened bones, arranged into a framework of pauldrons that stretched over his shoulders, and a similar arrangement of skeletal remains dangled from a bloodied cord strung around his waist, though in no particular shape. He only wore two pieces of clothing, if you could call them such; on his legs a pair of ragged and torn charcoal breeches, and on his head a hollowed rhoa skull with inwardly-curved horns.
“Please-” the old man begged, his voice rasping with exhaustion. The Blooddrinker’s eyes answered him, vacant and uncaring behind the rhoa’s visage. He threw his great-hammer into the air and brought it down on the old man, caving his skull in and scattering blood and brain matter over the dusty stone path.
Des looked away, unwilling to find out if the exile’s name was a literal moniker. To his left, he noticed Ash had his eyes closed. He listened for a moment, hearing only Ash’s murmured prayers to Innocence, waiting to see if the Blooddrinker was headed for the pair of them next. When the Karui’s thunderous footsteps began to fade away, Des risked a glance. The marauding exile had turned to travel back in the same direction he had come from, Des exhaled; his chest suddenly burning in pain as he took a breath, the air striking his lungs with urgency. He hadn’t realised he was holding his breath.
The old man’s body lay still in the middle of the road, his face a misshapen mockery of what it once was.
“We could have helped him,” Des said accusingly, turning toward Ash.
“Didn’t see you out on the road either,” the trickster replied scornfully. He leant around the nearby tree to double-check the Blooddrinker was gone, and then strode from the thicket.
“I couldn’t have helped him alone,” Des mumbled. He followed Ash out of the thicket and toward the road, where Ash stamped his feet in front of the bone-cruncher, a fit of exasperation whirling around the trickster.
“Look at this, there’s black-blood all over it!” Ash spat on the floor as he drew a knife from his belt. The bone-cruncher was drenched in the old man’s blood, a splatter of dark red that had sprayed the beast from head to hind leg. As Des glanced toward the beast’s corpse he grimaced. The blood was quickly darkening even further in the sunlight, a tell-tale sign of the sickness that had obviously plagued the man, that plagued all of Wraeclast; the corruption. “No-one is going to want meat drenched in black-blood. The whole thing is ruined,” Ash muttered. He took his knife and knelt, driving the spectral relic into the old man’s neck angrily. He gripped the corpse’s long beard, pulling it out of the way with one hand, and started to saw at the dead man’s neck.
“This is your fault,” Des said. “If you hadn’t been such a coward-”
“If I hadn’t been such a coward I’d be dead. What use is bravery to the dead?” Ash snapped. The old man’s neck began to rip in two, pulling from his body; Ash’s starlight knife reflected the rays of the midday sun as it made slower progress through the bone. “You’re a fool,” he muttered, loud enough for Des to hear. The dead man began to stir, a soft death rattle echoing out inside his chest as his eyelids opened to a hollow white pupil beneath; Ash didn’t hesitate, drawing his knife back forcefully. He made two powerful cuts, breaking the dead man’s spine beneath his blade and severing the rest of the neck. The reanimated ghoul expired immediately, its eyelids falling shut again as Ash held the head aloft proudly.
Just in time, Des thought. The corruption did wicked things.
“What do you say, old-timer? Would a few friends on the other side of Sin’s river have made you feel better about this whole thing?” Ash turned the head toward himself as he spoke and then twisted it toward Des. “Tell the stupid exile how you feel,” he mocked. Des scowled back at him, ignoring his taunts as he knelt down beside the old man’s body. “Oh!” Ash cried, dropping the head at his feet. “Letting a stranger die is bad but rifling through his pockets once he’s dead is just dandy?”
“He’s not going to use it,” Des replied.
“Whatever. You’re not half the hero you pretend to be Desmarais,” Ash scoffed. “You can keep that blood-stained bear if you like-” he said, nodding toward the bone-cruncher. “-I’ve got to go find dinner now. Again”. Neither exchanged a farewell as Ash turned down the road to leave.
Des found himself muttering under his breath as the trickster left. The gall of that man; he was one step from turning rogue himself.
How will we ever survive Wraeclast if we can’t help one and another? He turned the headless body toward him, exposing a pocket in the man’s long shirt. A few transmuter’s shards, a diviner’s card. Trinkets mostly, junk. He doubted that any of it was worth much but he pocketed it anyway; maybe he’d get lucky when he got back to camp and be able to trade it for something to sate his stomach. Des was about to turn away from the body as he noticed a strange lump in the long-shirt, about halfway up his abdomen. Ignoring the dead man’s dignity Des pulled the shirt up, revealing a pair of threadbare briefs and a drawstring purse tied around his waist.
Here we go, Des thought. He pulled his hatchet from his belt and cut the purse away from the man. No-one went to the lengths of hiding something from pickpockets unless it was something important. He pulled the purse open greedily to reveal a polished black stone inside. Is that it? It was a virtue gem, a thaumaturgical cache of experience and superhuman capability which could grant the bearer many strange abilities if properly harnessed from inside a thaumaturgical relic. Des tipped it into his palm, thoroughly unimpressed. A wondrous invention, to be sure, one that gave the exiles of Wraeclast the means with which to fight back against the deadly wilderness, but hardly an uncommon sight. He had three others recessed into the hilt of his hatchet even now.
He would have thrown the stone away, but its colour gave him pause. Virtue gems were usually a distinct shade of one of three colours: red, green or blue. The colours corresponded to the ancient thaumaturgical ways; rarely a gem might draw from two of the ways at once, sharing a mix of both colours, and rarer still a gem might draw from all three of the ways, reflecting no colour strongly and holding a clear see-through appearance. A black gem, however… Des couldn’t recall anyone ever coming across a similarly-coloured virtue gem. He pocketed the stone, feeling its sleek surface in his fingers. Perhaps a collector would want it; he was always hearing rumours of wealthy eccentrics who dabbled in one-of-a-kind and unusual items. Maybe he’d just found something to turn his luck after all.