A twig cracks.
Owen Belmont jerks awake, hand clenching around his shortsword. Beside him, Roach paws the damp earth and nickers. The dripping pines tower around them, glistening under the faint slivers of moonlight. The fire just a smoking heap of ash now.
A boar’s scream slices through the night as it fights to the death. Roach whinnies and stamps as the boar’s squeals weaken to a gurgling whimper, mixed with the brittle snap of bone and the wet ripping of flesh.
Poor bastard. Owen waits.
Another twig cracks. Off to his right. Something is crunching over dead leaves nearby. Something big. Heavy, steady footfalls. Moving with purpose. A cloud crawls across the moon, and the clearing darkens.
No fire. No moonlight. Stalked in the dark by a prowling Night Creature. Terrific. God shits in his dinner once again.
‘Easy, girl.’ He pats Roach’s muzzle and the chestnut mare nuzzles against him, snuffling into his hand. ‘This’ll all be over in a minute.’
He eases back against the treetrunk, scanning the undergrowth. Branches creak. Leaves shiver. Footfalls growing louder. A guttural bubbling snarl echoes from the darkness. The cloying reek of grave-mould and putrid rotting flesh.
This fucker again. Ugh. Took him long enough.
Owen grips his shortsword tight. His pulse a steady thrum in his ears.
Aw, hell. What’s the worst that could happen?
You’ll die, he answers himself. Duh.
Welp … better get this party started, then.
He breathes out. Purses his lips.
With a bloodthirsty roar, a frenzied mass of pale sinewy limbs and scything claws bursts from the darkness past him, barrelling straight towards Roach. She rears up and screams –
Owen dances out from cover and swings his sword. Hard. It sinks deep into the monster’s back. He plants his boot on the nightmare’s haunches, grits his teeth and tugs the weapon free. The sky-steel blade relinquishes its bite with a sickly squelch. Owen skips backwards, dropping into a defensive crouch.
The creature rounds on him with a screech of pain, its jagged gash bubbling and hissing. Owen’s eyes harden: a veidraugr, a shambling mummified corpse revived and twisted by blood magic, with a ravenous, insatiable hunger for life. Relentless. Merciless. Unstoppable. Fingernails stretched into cruel foot-long claws. Gaunt grey flesh writhing over bulging muscles. Mouldering bandages trailing from skeletal forearms. Its undead jaws peel back in a lipless snarl; a shred of bristly meat dangles from its leering mouth. Glittering black eyes blaze with fury. And unease. It’s injured now, and wary. It begins to circle.
‘What the hell kept you?’ Owen snarks. The veidraugr hisses and lashes out. Scare tactics. Testing the waters. Owen doesn’t even flinch.
‘Yeah yeah, real scary,’ he goads it on, spreading his arms wide. ‘C’mon then, you stinky fucker. C’monnn. Come at me. I’m right here!’
It shrieks and charges, claws slicing through the air –
Owen sidesteps a killing slash and darts inside its reach, hammering home a devastating uppercut with his swordhilt. Crack! The veidraugr staggers back, claws flailing, spitting bloody fangs from smashed gums. Then it blunders sideways as Roach’s hooves slam into its ribs. Owen dances after it in a heartbeat, steel singing as he hacks and cleaves, gouging ragged chunks from undead flesh. Lunging cobra-quick, he pins one taloned foot beneath his blade. The nightmare shrieks; concussed, blinded by blood and now crippled. Owen smirks grimly.
That’s right, you slimy bastard. Undead or alive, you’re coming with me!
Enraged, the veidraugr snarls and swipes at him. Owen ducks and rolls. The monster finally rips its mangled foot free and comes at him again. Every swing, Owen dodges. Jagged claw marks gouge the treetrunks around them.
Owen dives between two trees. The veidraugr hisses and shambles after him, shoving them apart with superhuman strength.
Just the opening he’s been waiting for.
Owen swarms forward, clenched fist crunching deep into its throat. The veidraugr gives a gargling wheeze and reels back. Two more jackhammer punches to its larynx bring it to its knees, clawing at its windpipe as it rasps for air. Owen clamps its bandaged jaw with both hands and wrenches its head back, further and further until –
The veidraugr crumples to the forest floor, oily black blood spurting from its torn-out throat and splattering the leaves which sizzle and shrivel. Panting, Owen straightens up and pads towards the undergrowth.
A hoarse rattling whimper greets him as he shoves aside low branches. The boar is sprawled on its side in a puddle of gore, belly ripped open as its hooves twitch feebly. Owen kneels beside it with a heavy sigh. ‘You poor bastard. Today just isn’t your day, is it?’ He pats its trembling flank. ‘At least you fought hard.’
The mortally wounded boar groans, tusks gnashing weakly. Hooves scraping the mud. A slow agonising death from blood loss awaits. Unless … Owen draws his knife, readies it behind the boar’s skull and covers its eyes. ‘Best mercy I can offer. Sorry, pal. It’ll be quick.’
He grits his teeth and plunges the knife deep. The boar squeals and thrashes, then falls still with a shuddering death-rattle. Jaw clenched, Owen straightens upright and trudges back to Roach, wiping his blade clean. His steed skitters away, nostrils flared at the stench of blood.
‘Hey, heyyy,’ he soothes her, stroking her sweaty mane as she nuzzles into his neck. ‘Thanks for the assist.’ She huffs and begins nibbling his hair. ‘Ow, fuck. Quit it.’ He swats her nose.
She sneezes into his face. Gross.
The veidraugr‘s corpse is sprawled at his feet, oozing blood. Serious bounty. Perfect insurance for the next township. Shows he means business. A useful stranger worth befriending. Perhaps even free food and a soft bed for the night? That’d be nice.
‘You ain’t gunna like this, missy. Don’t hate me.’ Roach whinnies and shrinks back, wide-eyed with fear as Owen drags his prize closer. With every muscle complaining he heaves the limp carcass across Roach’s hindquarters and lashes it tight; soon the veidraugr is draped behind his saddle with its claws trailing in the mud. Roach snorts and butts her nose against his jaw.
‘A bit less of your shit, please,’ Owen grunts, and saddles up.
© 2021 | Tom Burton