“There they are.”
The lambent glow of the campfire flickered lazily below, casting long shadows in the forest clearing. The man laying prone at the edge of the cliff sat up, dusting himself off.
“They have what we’re after. We’ll sneak in, kill them off, and take it.”
The man walked off to the side of the cliff’s edge, beginning down the cliff face that lead into the forest clearing. A scrawnier man came up behind him, unease plain on his face.
“Are you sure this is the wisest of decisions? You heard the stories. I don’t know if we can handle those things.”
“I have heard the stories. That’s the reason why we’re doing this. We’ve been at war for over four hundred years, and we’ve been at a stalemate nearly the entire time. All this has been is a war of attrition. Both sides keep losing forces, yet neither refuse to yield. But, with this, we’ll finally come out on top.”
The first man continued to make his descent, plunging into the shadows of the forest below, noiselessly. He glanced up, back toward his companion that was still making his way down the cliff.
“Quickly!” he whispered. “We need to catch them now, before they become paranoid!”
“I’m trying.” his companion whispered back. “I don’t normally scale cliff faces.”
He dropped the last several feet down, a muffled thud accompanying a choked grunt. His companion quickly pulled him to his position in the bushes, silently swearing.
“So, what are we after anyway? What would make them so paranoid about us stealing from them? As you said, we’ve been at war for hundreds of years. Why would they be any more cautious than they usually are?” the scrawny man asked, rubbing his right ankle that cushioned his fall.
“It’s not us they’re paranoid about…” his companion responded, trailing off.
The scrawny man stared at his partner inquisitively, trying to decipher his cryptic statement.
“How long do you need to prepare?” the larger of the two men asked. The scrawny man snapped out his slight trance at the inquiry.
“Not long. A couple of seconds.” He answered, drawing out a small pouch.
“Ok, stay here.” the larger man whispered, rising into a low crouch.
The campfire made the wagon in front of them cast a long shadow, leading straight into their position in the forest underbrush. The man crept out from his position in the undergrowth, creeping into the wagon’s shadow. His footsteps were silent as he made his way up to the edge of the wagon. The moment he was close enough, he threw his back to the wagon, sidling up to the edge. He drew a dagger from his belt with his left hand, using a reverse grip. He took one last breath before covering his features with a rag he had drawn out, leaving only his eyes visible. He steadied himself before glancing around the corner of the wagon.
Before him sat four people around a campfire: three men and a woman. All of them looked beleaguered, sweat coating their faces and clothing, with worn looks etched into the lines of their faces. Each person sat directly opposite another, the campfire sitting in the center. Directly in front of the armed man a member of the party sat, leaning against a wheel of the wagon. He was hunched over, staring intently at the tendrils of flame as they licked at the embers they spit up.
The armed man slowly emerged from the back of the wagon, clinging as tightly as he could to the side of the wagon. He inched forward little by little, clutching any handhold his right hand could find on the side of the wagon. He stopped a mere foot away from the hunched man, the man’s shadow dancing on his body as the flames whipped furiously about. He readied his dagger behind the man, and stopped. He held that position for a second, waiting.
The hunched man continued to watch the flames. As he did, the flames jumped for just a second. In an instant, the dust around the campfire began to swirl in a vehement frenzy, the campfire sitting in the eye of the dust cloud. The group of four cried out in shock, breaking out into coughs in the upturned powder. The wagon horses brayed out in fear.
The armed man sunk his dagger into the small of the hunched man’s back. The moment he felt the body fall limp, he freed the blade from its slick sheath. He rushed clockwise around the campfire, deftly lunging at the silhouette of the next man. The dagger found purchase right above the man’s collarbone. Freeing the blade once more, he delved into the dust storm towards the next form, bringing the dagger up into the gut of the third man from below. He pulled it free with his right hand, and nimbly brought it into a reverse grip again, drawing the blade against the gutted man’s throat in a flourish. Behind him, the woman cried out in rage. A blade narrowly missed his left shoulder, and he turned just in time to duck under the follow up swing. He launched a kick at the wavering outline behind him, striking against a solid figure. He heard a guttural grunt, and he quickly followed up with a swift slash towards the head of the shaded figure. The form fell to the wayside, lying prostrate on the swirling ground.
The armed man rushed out of the storm to the side of the wagon, waving his arms. The swirling maelstrom behind him quickly settled back into a peaceful state, the fire still roaring in the center. The four bodies remained where they fell, the blood upon the ground already covered by the dust of the storm. The scrawny man emerged from the underbrush to join his companion, a thin sheen of sweat covering his features. He was out of breath when he caught up to his companion.
“Good job.” The armed man said, removing the rag from his face to clean off the dagger.
“Thank…you…” the scrawny man panted. “So…did you…find what…we’re…looking for?”
“We’re about to find out.” His companion replied.
He walked over to the entrance of the wagon, stepping over the body of the once-hunched man. He reached up to the wagon’s covering flaps, and flung them back. The scrawny man screamed out in surprise, falling to the ground.
Before him in the wagon, eight jet-black globes reflected the light of the campfire. Large fangs sank into the wood of the wagon, digging ruts into the striations. Eight glossy legs sat curled under the main bulk of the entity, the tips poking into the sides of the wagon. The scrawny man sat there in shock for a moment, then realized that the creature failed to move after several moments.
“T-THAT’S WHAT WE’RE AFTER!?” the smaller man cried out.
“Yes.” His partner replied sternly.
“What could we possibly do with one of those things!? What are we going to do with that!?”
“We’re going to use this to call out more of them.” The larger man declared.
“That is what they were afraid of, isn’t it!? How is a corpse going to do that!?” the smaller man cried out, unable to contemplate what his partner was planning.
“Think about it. How many corpses of these things have you ever seen?” the man asked.
“I’ve seen enough of these things to know they’re dangerous!” the scrawny man cried out.
“But how many corpses have you actually seen? All of these Raknar strike out suddenly, swiftly, and efficiently. They hardly suffer any casualties of their own, and when they do, the corpse is reclaimed before any humans can get to them. All except this one. Our scouts saw the enemy find this Raknar in the waters near Thornvine. It was trapped beneath a loose wagon and drowned to death. It is in near perfect condition, and all of its insides should be relatively intact.” The armed man explained methodically.
“Why wasn’t it reclaimed?” his partner asked, contemplating the implications of the corpse.
“I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with how they find their dead. Usually when we kill them, they’re cut, crushed, burned, dismembered. I would stake my life that these creatures find each other by smell. When their innards are exposed, it must release some smell that their fellow spawn can find, and reclaim the body. And that’s how we’re going to use them.”
“What? We’re not going to inspect the body? We could find some really useful answers hidden inside that body. Maybe something to use against these ‘Raknar.’”
“Didn’t I say it before? We’ve been at war for hundreds of years. And now, we finally have a chance to end it. We can deal with these Raknar later, after we’ve won this war.”
“Are you sure? I didn’t expect to be doing something of this degree. I was told we were to do something in regards to the Raknar, but this-this is just insane!” the smaller man exclaimed.
His partner turned on his heel, the campfire reflected in his glaring eyes.
“This war has taken everything from me. My parents died in a raid. My brother died in battle. My wife died in my arms. I will see this war finished.” He declared, moving back to the wagon. He hitched up the horses to the wagon, closing the wagon flaps over the Raknar’s face.
“Are you coming, or not?”
The scrawny man walked up to the wagon.
“I have faced men on the field of battle, animals out in the wild, even creatures of the Arcane. But these creatures, these Raknar, frighten me in unimaginable ways. Men will wage their wars, animals will fight for food and protection, and the Arcane leave well enough alone. But these Raknar, they don’t fight. They hunt.” The scrawny man explained.
“This war hasn’t affected just me, or did you forget your sister? Tell me again how they broke into your house in the dead of night and snatched her away from you.” The armed man goaded.
“I’ll ask you again. Are you coming, or not?”
“There is the settlement.” The armed man said from the front of the wagon. “Have you figured out how to do it, yet?”
“I believe so. My studies tell me that most creatures with hardened shells as these are like men with armor. They’re weak at the joints.” The scrawny man said in the back of the wagon. He pointed at the corpse of the Raknar, indicating the point where one of the legs joined the abdomen.
“Very well. Step aside, I’ll do it.” The armed man said, drawing out his dagger. “Be sure to follow me once this starts. They’ll be on us shortly once we begin.”
He moved into position next to the body. Taking his dagger, he sunk the blade into the creature’s flesh, right above the leg.
“You’ll want to move horizontally, in order to expose most of the interior.” His companion advised.
The armed man did so. However, once the blade bit into the bulk of the flesh, the body cavity erupted into a geyser of fluid.
“AHH! That is vile!” the scrawny man cried out.
A tableau of foreign organs and structures laid strewn out before them. A fetid smell oozed from the body, the wave of odor suffocating.
“Quickly! We have to act now!” his partner commanded.
Jumping out of the wagon, the armed man waited for his partner to exit, then slapped the horses into a sprint. The horses tore out of the forest where they were hidden out towards the settlement.
“Follow me! We have to get horses as fast as possible!
The two broke out perpendicularly from the wagon, heading toward the next entrance of the settlement. The wagon almost immediately drew the attention of the guards, crashing through several crowds of people before tipping over, spilling its contents out into the street. A woman screamed.
“We have to get out of here!” the armed man repeated.
The two men dashed as fast as possible towards the next entrance. They quickly found horses tied up outside the gates. The armed man took out his dagger once again, and hacked at the reins of two horses, freeing them. The smaller man saddled immediately.
“HEY! WHAT ARE YOU TWO DOING!?” a guard exclaimed, no longer distracted by the commotion coming from inside of town.
The armed man clambered up onto his horse just as the guard approached. From his raised position, he lined up his foot with the guard’s chest and kicked him back. He quickly turned the horse around and urged him forward. The two escaped into the forest, branches tearing at their faces. The guard tried chasing after them, but gave up the pursuit shortly after.
“How long do you think we have?” the smaller man asked, struggling to maintain balance on his mount.
“I’m not sure, but the Raknar seem to be quick enough to reclaim their own. I assume they’ll be here before lo-“ As he spoke, a rumbling emerged from the ground beneath them, causing the horses to bray out in fear.
“They’re here already!?” his partner exclaimed aloud.
“This isn’t good. We have to get as far from here as we can!” the armed man announced.
The two raced out into the woods, the rumbling and the sounds of screams following them through the brush.
“You were right.” The smaller man said.
The two had ridden for hours, and were nearing their settlement. They rode into the setting sun, the world cast into an orange hue.
“I was.” The larger man said introspectively.
“So, is your war won?”
“I’d like to think so.”
A silence enveloped the two as they rode, the clopping of the horses the only sound as they emerged out into sunlight.
“Here we are.” The armed man stated, their settlement finally coming to view.
“Yes. Here we are.” His companion repeated, a hint of annoyance creeping into his tone.
“Is there something you wish to say?” the armed man asked.
“What we did today was wrong.” the small man declared.
“What we did today will win us this war.” The armed man retorted.
“What we did today was vile.” The small man snapped.
“Well, it’s over now.” The armed man concluded, effectively ending the discussion.
The two continued to ride towards the settlement, the walls getting gradually larger and larger. The small man’s words, however, echoed inside his head.
What we did today was vile.
The choice of words reminded him of the day’s events. He glanced down to his shirt, noting it had been stained by the Raknar’s fluids.
The ground began to quake beneath them. Hunks of earth lifted from the soil, creating large fissures in the face of the ground. Their horses reared back in fear, causing the armed man to fall from his saddle. He struck the ground heavily, leaving him dazed for a moment. When he regained his senses, he looked around. His partner lay on the ground nearby, crushed beneath the weight of his mount. The settlement sat some distance away, the walls casting long shadows in the sunlight.
But, the thing that drew his attention the most was the large creature that blocked out the sunlight above him. Eight jet-black globes stared down on him, following his movements with knowing precision. Large fangs dripped venom onto the ground, creating pools. Eight glossy legs stood on either side of him, holding the monstrosity in the air above him.
“What have I done?”