Hunters of the Dead Preview

The wind howled like the wayward cries of a madman as it came whipping down from the high mountains, flushing the valley with the bitter cold that all winters bring.


Herds of Blackhorned Elk huddled together, eyes keeping vigilant against the creatures that stalked the night and the creatures that would try to steal the young they had encircled within their ranks. Their great horns, easily wide enough to handle even the largest of bears or the nimblest of wolves, covered in thin sheets of frost, icicles dangling from their shaggy coats which provided them some measure of protection from the primordial cold that seemed to seep through Wetterstein Mountains every winter’s night.


The largest of the elk, a male that stood twice as tall as a man, raised his head as, over the shrieking winds, he heard the movements of the beast that the herd feared; a beast that had stalked them for the past four nights. He snorted loudly, drawing the other males’ attention, shifting his horns slightly to motion into the surrounding darkness. The woods were heavy with snow and ice, but the hoof-carved paths were still passable to those long of leg and strong of spirit. Unlike the strange fire walkers of the stone forests dotting the mountains, the Great Elk could see well in the dark. Sitting at just the edge of his vision, was the horror that had stalked his herd.


A tall, hairless beast that stood not on four legs but two, like the fire walkers. But unlike the frail little creatures, this being’s arms reached the ground as it stood, stooped over a snow-covered boulder, watching the herd as a hungry wolf might. But this creature was far more dangerous than any wolf that the Great Elk had ever encountered; it moved with an almost unfathomable speed, sometimes using its gangly arms to grip a low branch and swing forward as it would chase race alongside the herd. Other times it would vanish from sight, leaving naught a trace of its existence, save for the faint smell of the rotting flesh caught between its thin, black teeth in its vertical, flat maw that split the center of its head down the middle.


The herd could not sleep or rest because of this creature’s relentless pursuit, doggedly keeping pace with their own, always allowing it to feel its presence. The last time the herd had relaxed, it had claimed two calves, one in each massive hand, before leaping off into the darkness. The tortured cries of the young had lasted all night, and they had forced the Great Elk many times to keep the cows from going out into the darkness to save them.

He knew a trap when he heard one.


Just as dawn had broken this morning the calves had finally fallen silent and upon further investigation, the herd had been most distraught to find both hanging from the trees a scant few yards from where they had been standing all night, pinned to the thick branches by their own splintered ribs, chests left wide open and organs, now laying in rime-laden pools beneath them. Large sections of their backs and legs were missing, torn free by the beasts’ horrible maw, though a good deal of glistening meat still sat frozen on the twin corpses, untouched by the strange creature.


Now it sat there, leaning back on the corded muscles of its haunches, watching the herds every movement with six yellow slated eyes positioned around the creature’s bizarre mouth. It was slowly scooping snow into its right hand, a wide and cruel tool ending in three barbed talons, letting the wet mess slide through into a messy pile at its hooves. The Great Elk could smell the rotting meat of its own, knowing that the smell was coming from the beast’s own breath. It was taunting him…


Well, it would taunt him no longer!


The Great Elk burst into a sprint; head lowered in preparation of ramming the creature with its sharpened horns. Three young bucks were right beside him, running headlong in a straight formation that they had used several times to trample wolves that had proven too brave or hungry for their own good. A small tree shattered into splinters as the elk’s left horn caught it, severing it at shoulder height and sending it crashing down into the deeper recesses of the forest. Several more joined it as several tons of solid muscle quickly closed in on the strange monster which had yet to even acknowledge the charging menace closing in upon it.


And then it was upon them, leaping over their sharpened horns and hardened skulls, slashing at the flanks of two of the brave young bucks that had charged along with him. The talons ignored their frozen shell of fur and thickened hide, tearing deep gashes open with but the barest of ease, the air now taking on the sickening scent of copper and fear. The young buck didn’t even shriek in pain, as the beast was immediately upon it, gripping his horns and twisting violently about, snapping his neck like so many dry twigs beneath a hoof. As he twisted the dislocated skull of the cooling corpse about, he rammed it into the chest of another young elk, causing the sharpened bits of horn to pierce through his surprised brethren in a most horrid manner, a crimson spray of freezing mist rising and painting the gray monster’s face with splattered traces of fur and meat.


The Great Elk watched in horror as the beast dispatched the last of his younger comrades, breaking its back with a mighty leap from the connected corpses of his younger brethren. The buck yelped in agony in sync with the sound of his upper spine snapping, just before his head was torn free from cords of thickened muscle and sinew, only to be tossed aside carelessly as the monster casually stepped down from the collapsing body, staring balefully with all six yellow slits into the eyes of the Great Elk.


And for the first time in countless seasons, the greatest elk in the herd felt fear. And as he tried desperately to gore the offending monster as it somehow appeared beside him, he howled in anguish and frustration as he felt his front two legs snap, dropping him suddenly to the slushy red snow with a sickening splat. Kicking and bucking in vain, all he could do was wail and cry, doing his best to let the herd know he’d failed in his charge, did not keep them safe, and that they needed to run before they too became the creature’s next meal.

As the warmth of life slowly gave way to the chill of winter, the cold snow pressed around the Great Elk’s muzzle, stained red with his own blood, he could hear the crunching of the snow as the monster slowly lumbered its way around his body, until the great hooves stopped in the Elk’s direct line of vision. The pain was intense, and from his vantage point on the ground he could only see one of his severed legs and up to the first joint of the creature’s pale, muscled leg, but the Great Elk could sense the predatory eyes wandering over his body. Wondering where next would be the best to cut into, where the Great Elk had the juiciest selections of savory flesh, he could sample... yes, this beast was a predator, the Great Elk knew.


The Great Elk was to die, and he knew it because he’d been too sure of himself and his own strength. His younger brethren too had fallen prey to their own confidence; foolishly rushing the monster that had proven too strong for them, prove it was as cunning as any wolf and as strong as any bear. Their pride had led to their, and by extension the herds, destruction, this the Great Elk knew…


And then the Great Elk knew nothing. ___

The Beast snarled as he pulled his hoof noisily from the crushed mess that had once been the strange animal’s skull, enjoying the sucking noise that came along with the sensation of the creature’s gray matter sticking messily to his sharpened hooves. He’d snuck into this valley weeks ago, overjoyed at the fact it was so full of life, despite the freezing conditions of the season. Everywhere he went he could find animals to hunt, from the great horned deer like these to the gigantic black-furred bears that seemed to dwell in every sizable cave worth noting. He’d even had the chance to stalk some creatures like the Hell Hounds back home, great gray-furred creatures made of nothing but toughened sinew and fang.


He snarled as he yanked one of the great antlers free of the fractured mess, shaking it a few times to free it of the hanging flesh and fur still connected to it. A worthy trophy for his growing collection! On his third night in this strange mountain chain, he’d located a suitable lair, a large cave (inhabited by a pair of unimpressive bears that had quickly become the beginning of a large pile of semi-tanned furs that the Beast had converted into a bed) that had several smaller chambers leading deeper into the mountainside. They’d become a new shrine to pain and pride, two of the greater sins that the Beast thrived upon; he’d been slowly creating an arsenal of primitive torture devices, carved from the harvested bones of his kills and many small tables and chairs that would serve him well in future endeavors, when he finally worked up the courage to raid one of the human settlements dotting the many valleys in the surrounding area.


The Beast grinned at the thought of his future victims, lazily lapping at the sizzling hot spittle leaking from his mouth with a sinuous tongue. But no, he decided, pulling back to the here and now.


Now was not the time to daydream, not with dawn approaching. He’d made do the past few days by burrowing into large snowbanks, to avoid the harsh rays of the sun. With terrible thoughts of torture and pain echoing throughout his dirty mind, the Beast grabbed hold of one deer’s remaining legs, slinging the heavy beast over his shoulder onto his sloped back: home was but a few minutes away if he could travel through the trees, and dragging the beast back would most definitely leave a suspicious trail he wanted to avoid.


For now.


While the Beast didn’t fear humans (he feared nothing!) he knew revealing his presence now could lead to complications for further hunts, further games of sport, and his true purpose for lurking in these mountains.


And the Beast would have none of that.


The Beast grunted as he leaped into the air, one clawed hand clamped over his heavy burden while the other sought purchase on a frost-coated branch. His hooves dug into the bark of the trunk with the ease of fire through wax as he steadily scaled the tall tree until reaching a branch sturdy enough to hold him aloft.


Down below he could see the rest of the herd of deer moving in to sniff at the corpses of their heroes, looking about in wonder at what had felled their greatest with such ease. Their fear wafted high and thick, filling the Beast with a sense of ease that, feeding the hungering demon even as it moved on. He lingered for a few moments longer, allowing their fear to fill his gullet, satiating a great thirst he had been harboring for days now. The two younglings had served well enough for an evening’s worth of entertainment, but their fear had vanished far too quickly, instead replaced by a sense of morbid confusion that all animals seemed to get when being tortured.


They didn’t understand, the poor things…


They had served well enough the, slaking the lust for fear just long enough for the Beast to hunt another night, their pain giving him more than enough to feed off for the time being.

A sharp crack echoed through the silent woods, causing the Beast to whip his head about to look for the source of the noise, spreading out his senses hoping to catch a new source of fun he could bring home with him. Dozens of small rodents and birds were close by, hiding within their hollow burrows in the ground and in the trees. Deer were milling about below, not sure what they should do now that it had slain their alpha… but nothing else.


Strange, the Beast thought as his eyes scanned the forest floor. What made that noise then?

The answer came in the form of a three-foot arrow snapping through the air, piercing straight through the meaty corpse of the deer on his back and threw into his own chest cavity. The Beast howled to the sky, letting go of the deer and allowing it to slide off his back. He had no need of it now if he had humans to hunt!


Sadly, this was not a great idea (which the Beast quickly realized) as the great weight of the Elk, which had been so carefully balanced on his back during his ascent into the trees, was now drifting backward at an alarming rate. This wouldn’t be a problem if the damned arrow that had just struck him hadn’t pinned the animal to his back. The Beast flailed its arms about hoping to gain balance, but to no avail; he toppled backward and began his second great fall from the sky (though this one was far less dramatic if the Beast took but a moment to ponder upon it).


He landed roughly amid the grieving herd, landing hard atop the corpse of one of the smaller horned deer with a pained grunt as the dead creature’s horns dug into his side rather painfully. Belly down, the Beast could only grunt again as three more arrows embedded themselves in his back, further pinning the dead weight of his latest trophy to him in a most undignified manner. Growling, he pushed himself onto his hooves and stood high, spreading his arms out wide and letting loose a bellowing roar. If the humans thought their meager arrows were of any consequence to him, they were sorely mistaken!


His eyes could see them now, their dark silhouettes concealed by the trees they stood by. Each wore a solid white smock over boiled leather jerkins, their faces covered by white leather masks topped with wide-brimmed hats and ending in long, hooked noses. The Beast grew more excited as he took in the sight before him.

Ravens.


He had stumbled upon a secluded set of valleys that just so housed his mortal enemies, humanities last true hope at reclaiming their world… oh, the delicious irony! The Beast laughed, swatting at his knees as he fought to contain his mirth as blood bubbled through his mouth.


“You win little birds…” He shouted to them in Aramaic, already noting with general unease the tingling in his back where the first arrow had pierced him. His prize package had absorbed the brunt of the arrow force, along with the poison. The following three arrows, while all having a similar issue, was more than enough to subdue him. The more he moved, the faster it would spread. “Come on out and claim your prize!”


Their response was another round of arrows into his chest, this time from the front and without having to pass through any other material other than the Beast’s hardened hide itself. He hissed in pleasure as the arrows sank deep into the thickly corded muscle of his upper torso, the pain quickly ebbing away as the poison quickly spread, numbing all his nerves at a rapid rate.


“Have you no questions for me, little birds? I’ve heard tales of how you like to question us before the killing, hoping to learn our ways,” He continued, dropping to one knee as he lost control of the leg. “I would think you all have earned but a simple answer from me, for my lack of thought and carelessness.”


They remained as silent as the grave as they watched him collapse into the snow, remaining still until the Beast's breathing became heavy and labored.


“No questions then?” He gasped, still shouting out to any who would listen. “Then do what would have saved your people centuries ago and seal the deal! Your sin of pride will be, and has been, your downfall… as surely as it has been mine.”


Three more cracks echoed through the snow-laden woods, the last of the herd of Blackhorned Elk scattering as the Beast’s vision darkened.


And then the Beast knew nothing. ___ The last three arrows they’d had fired into the demon had pierced its skull and neck, one going through the upper part of its mouth, another piercing one of its many eyes, the last embedding itself in its neck. Ivan would have to lecture Jonathan about his aim later, as the neck shot was virtually useless in any instance but this.


He motioned for Jonathan to move forward with him, using prepared hand signs to tell Samuel to keep guard. Sam nodded once before notching another arrow in his longbow, aiming straight at the great demon’s back while Jonathan moved forward with their commander. The Beast had been bellowing in its last few seconds of life, though for the life of him Ivan didn’t understand it. He couldn’t say he understood a single word that the demon had bellowed, though he knew it spoke in Aramaic.


The elder's back home said they all speak the language of God, referring to it as the Old Tongue… he didn’t know about any of that though. Ivan never cared for any of that spiritual talk… if these creatures were truly fallen angels, the remains of some great race of creatures that an all-powerful serving him, Ivan doubted that he and his hunters would stand any kind of chance against them.


As they approached the demons prone form, Ivan stopped every few feet to look at the small green gem dangling from his wrist, hoping against hope it would continue to diminish in brightness. Rosary Beads, as the hunters liked to call them, glowed in the presence of evil (so the Elders said). He didn’t know about all of that, but they sure as hell lit up if any demon came within a few miles. Not the best security system in the world as the beads couldn’t tell them where the intruding demon was, or if it’s one or a thousand of them; just that there was a demon close by, the light growing brighter the closer you got to them.


Despite their rather glaring fault in detection, they had one added benefit that Ivan found helpful: they didn’t shine around dead demons. And his dangling Rosary was growing dimmer by the second.


Jonathan slid over some ice-slickered path, stumbling forward clumsily into his shoulder.


Ivan glared at the younger man and shoved him back. “Dumb bastard! Stay back and be prepared for anything… I know this is your first night on the prowl, but that’s no excuse to be so damned stupid!”


Jonathan’s face was equally covered by the long-beaked mask that all the hunters wore, but after years of staring into similar masks, one could sense the sneer behind the hood. “The demon’s dead, no need to be so paranoid Ivan. What’s it gonna do, come back to life?”


“… just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Ivan quoted from memory, watching the demon’s corpse slowly gathered small flecks of falling snow over its pierced hide. “You’ll find that anything we call a demon can surprise you. Better safe than sorry, you know?”


Jonathan remained silent as they stopped a few yards from the corpse. The Rosary dangling from Ivan’s wrist had finally grown dull, now merely a darkened green opal dangling from a silver chain in place of the blazing light that had been glowing for the past few days. Ivan heaved a sigh of relief, waving the all clear sign to Samuel, and an order to break camp in the boughs of one of the many Silver Fir’s surrounding them; they deserved a rest after this hunt, and a day of sleep followed by a night under the stars worry free as they returned to the Nest would be a fine gift.


“Hey,” Jonathan piped up, having approached the abominations corpse, kicking it idly with the tip of his boot. “Why’d it take the deer with it?”


Ivan merely shrugged as he pulled his crossbow over his shoulder and rebound the Rosary chain around his wrist. “Trophy probably. They gather little trinkets, or parts, from the things they kill.”


“Why?” Jonathan asked, kneeling over the corpse, poking at it errantly with a heavy dagger. “Don’t they exist to kill, to reap the souls of His children?”


Ivan fought back a sigh and enjoyed the confines of his own hood as he rolled his eyes at the little fanatic. Ivan may be a Raven, a hunter of the supernatural, but he was hardly a believer in everything the old texts claimed; Hell, he sometimes even doubted whether God and all the others existed, what with the way the world had fallen into such disarray.


“They live to hunt yes, but they have lives outside of that,” Ivan answered after a few moments of watching the snow fall about, drifting through the pitch black lazily around them.


“Most take up art, actually.”


“Art?” Jonathan asked with surprise, struggling to lift the dead demons heavy three-clawed hand.


“Well, what they call art at least,” Ivan muttered with a shrug, still watching the snow fall, eyes wandering the horizon, in search of… something. “They derive sustenance from pain in the way we do from dry bread, but each demon craves something else, something far more sinister. They hunger for the emotional aspects of at least one of the seven sins.”


“Like envy and lust?” Jonathan asked with a hint of disgust, dropping the claw to the ground as if it had suddenly become something toxic.


Well, more toxic.


Ivan shrugged again. “Those are far rarer from what I’ve read; most feed off things like anger or fear, things that they can easily instill in victims that they take captive.”


“I didn’t know demons took captives,” Jonathan said with a low whistle, shuffling around the body to look at the creatures ruined skull. “Cor, this thing is hideous.”


“Yeah, they are a little disturbing to look at.” Ivan dryly commented as he walked past him, smacking him upside the head. “Just retrieve the arrows and sever the head; don’t need this thing pulling a resurrection on us. Plus, proof of a slain demon, easy sixty crowns for that.”


“That’s twenty a piece!” Jonathan exclaimed before pulling out his dagger, taking a firm grip of one arrow lodged in the skull to gain better access to the creature’s neck. His blade soon clove through the thick muscles of the demon’s neck. “So, you think he has captives?”


“What?” Ivan said, turning from the horizon to look at him, not understanding the question.


“Captives. You said they sometimes take captives,” Jonathan explained, nodding his head to the great elk carcass harpooned to the demons back. “And that they don’t eat meat, right? That’s why he’d bring the whole elk back, to feed captives. Otherwise, he’d just take the horns or something.”


“No, they never keep captives long… oh God, he must have someone with him!” Ivan suddenly realized all plans for a relaxing trip back home now banished from his mind. “Look him over; does he have any markings, like tattoos or anything?”


“Um… yeah, one right here on the back of his claw, burnt into his skin. Why, what’s that mean?” Jonathan asked, looking at the prone hand in question, the strange diamond-shaped sigil burned into the gray hide standing stark against the snow and the blackened, simmering blood seeping from the demon’s corpse as he was sawing into thick sinew and tendon.


Crack!


Jonathan launched back several feet as one of Samuel’s special arrows rocketed from the darkness, ramming into, and through, his chest just beneath his right clavicle with a sickening squelching noise akin to the bursting of a rotting pumpkin. He hit the ground rolling, limbs slack and eyes wide as the life ebbed from them forever.


Ivan rolled to the left as another arrow soared past him, crashing through the underbrush behind him. As he rolled up into a low crouch, he pulled a long-edged dagger and a small handheld crossbow; tools ill-advised for use against demons or the undead, but perfect for fighting a human.


“Samuel!” He shouted, his voice echoing through the woods as if to mock him, the only response being a sudden torrent of wind and snow whipping through the trees, further obscuring his vision.


“Samuel is mine now, Raven.” A voice silkily replied from the darkness, up close to where they’d left the younger man, a deep husky voice that could only belong to a woman. “Though I must thank you, I had wondered what I would end up calling him. It suits him.”


“Witch!” Ivan hissed, cursing his own arrogance and blatant laziness during the hunt. He could imagine his old commander in his head now, lecturing him to always check a demon for a mark, to see if it had a mortal servant or worse, a mortal master. If scarred, then they own man. If burned, then man owns them.


“Come now, little bird. You know you’ve lost; come out and meet the maker you so blindly follow, see if She has a reward for her favorite pet parakeet waiting for her in the afterlife,” The witch laughed, her voice coming from seemingly everywhere at once. Another arrow whizzes past Ivan, forcing him to seek cover behind a tree.


She’d either enthralled Samuel or worse, killed him and reanimated him; either way, he was a lost cause now. The only thing he could worry about was making sure this witch died before dawn… they had only stumbled upon the demon by luck, luck fueled by an old artifact that had alerted them of its presence. All the other Ravens would now think the threat was gone and merely wait for him to return or assume the mission had killed his squad.


Raven’s don’t have a long-life expectancy, so it wouldn’t be a far fetched idea.


But to leave a witch roaming free? That was unacceptable.


With the mad woman cackling from all directions, Ivan did his best to try to think of a way to kill her without dying. Each of his crossbow bolts was hollow wooden syringes full of an opium concentrate, while it coated his dagger in silver blessed by a priest on the all-hallows eve, smeared with a putty-like mixture of salt, lemon juice, and alcohol. Either weapon would do, assuming he could land a blow on her. Sadly, his skills against witches were hardly up to par.


That was what that fool Jonathan had been brought aboard for, for his propensity for White Magic; now he was worthless to Ivan, just another cold corpse in a freezing pool of his own fluids, because of Ivan’s own arrogance.


A sudden smile graced his features as he stared at Jonathan’s corpse, a crazy idea coming to mind. Hell, Ivan thought morbidly, it’s worth a shot!

___ Jotelf grinned with unholy abandon as she twisted the mind of her newest consort with but a simple gesture of her hand, ordering him to ready his bow for another volley. The coming snow flurries from the high mountains was making it more of a chore than necessary, but Jotelf was more than willing to savor her victory over the supposed protectors of mankind.

The demon they’d slain had been an utter beast to control, and an even bigger pain to command, so while she was truly annoyed at the loss of the asset, it relieved her at the same time.


Ensnaring the demon had been a labor of love almost, leaving captured children out in vulnerable areas around a region well known for Demonic activity. Whether a rift to Hell existed somewhere in those hills or it was merely a tribe of demons that had escaped the abyss, Jotelf didn’t care. She could remember slowly coaxing the demon away from its pack before slamming it with some of her most offensive spells, crackling waves of lightning and great mounds of animated earth ripped free from the ground used as battering rams. She’d had to kill three other demons that had been close by before crippling the one she ended up Branding that day, channeling the energies of her Master funneled through her to overcome the beast’s formidable defenses.


Now without the constant drain upon her magical reserves, she could tool about with other branches of magic that had always interested her, especially now she had a whole mountain range of virtually defenseless test subjects, thanks to her well-spent efforts of slinking past the fortified wall undetected, a sheer wall cliff she’d ordered the demon to climb while holding onto her. It’d made a comment of how clumsy it could be but had done nothing; her control had been absolute.


Floating mere inches above the thick frosting of snow coating the forest floor, Jotelf’s lack of protective wear more than compensated by her own twisted magic, she floated forward to gaze down the slope where her demon had fallen. Just before she was about to call out another taunt to her trapped prey, she gasped in shock and awe as she saw him jogging up the hill, a long spear held in one hand and a curved knife in the other.


“My, oh my, you are a stout one aren’t you!” She cried with glee, thinking of all the wonderful games she could play with him. Tugging at Samuel’s strings, she smiled as she mentally ordered him to fire at will, reminding him to aim to wound, not kill.


Samuel lost his arrow; the javelin sized projectile connecting solidly with the lone Raven’s shoulder, causing him to stumble momentarily. His face, if not masked by those ridiculous hoods they all insisted on wearing, was blinded by the coming storm, the twisting winds roiling about them as if it were some behemoths heart beating, the howling winds too loud to even hear the Raven’s scream as the serrated arrowhead pierced his shoulder.


As Samuel cocked another arrow, Jotelf ended this charade once and for all, summoning forth her own internal energies into the physical realm, a tortured shriek filled the air as a crackling crimson orb formed mere inches from her breast. She knew this spell well, having grown fond of it because of its propensity to causing widespread damage for its explosive nature, and its propensity to cause the wounds of those that survived the blast to rapidly become infected.


“Goodbye little bird, I wish I could say you were worth the effort, but I do ever so much hate lying.” She muttered to herself as she swatted the crackling orb towards the advancing form of her enemy, his spear and dagger held low as he tromped up the hill sluggishly. The orb lazily hovered before her before darting forward, bobbing back and forth like a firefly trying to escape the clutches of a hungry bat.


Her aim was off by a few inches, the static orb striking him solidly in the chest rather than near his head. The effect was roughly the same, with a piercing cry and a low keening wail the orb burst like an overripe melon, great arcs of crimson energy lashing out with a razor's edge. A font to blood sprayed from the gaping wound where his chest once was, scattered pieces of twisted leather and bits of bone exploding forth from the point of contact, throwing the insolent man back, his weapons falling from hands that were likely now dead.


The howls of the damned filled her ears, a private moment between her and her unholy patron that occurred whenever she tapped into her infernal powers. She’d long ago traded her humanity for something far greater, giving her once meaningless life as a nameless serf a sense of purpose. She shivered with an untold lust as the gentle caress of her Lord swept across her voluptuous features, down and over her curves like the hands of a lover. He was excited, she could tell.


Excited about receiving a new soul to sup upon. The foolish archer she’d ensnared in her enchantments would remain with her for the time being, as these cretins had dispatched her personal guard and she needed a new one. But her newly disemboweled Raven now dying in the snow?


Meat for her Master.


Whispering the forbidden words of power, she stalked closer to the steaming corpse before her, once again gathering her mystical energies to serve her sadistic desires. The soul of the recently departed lingered for a time, and for one with the right knowledge, and the right skills, could bind the soul into service.


Her power was more than enough to ensnare the loosened spirit of this cocky warrior, and a new soul for her infernal master would promise her a night of passion she would not soon forget. The thought of it brought a fluttering to her stomach and sudden warmth to her core… licking her lips sensually, she knelt by the corpse, smiling at the work her spell had done.


The man’s armor had spared him the indignity of being blown to pieces, though only just. All his ribs were charred, with great scores of lines running along them as if someone had taken a knife to them. His insides were merely a cesspool of liquefied organs, a steaming cauldron of human waste that was bubbling from the sudden heat of her fiery orb, the hole wide enough for a child to slip through. Muttering the incantation slowly, she dipped a hand into her robe and pulled a crystal vial, dipping it into the impromptu soup she had made from her victim.


Dawn was quickly approaching, and she had yet to have anything to eat thanks largely in part to the pesky birds swooping in on her hunter. While perhaps not the most wholesome of foods she had eaten, she was no stranger to the flesh of man and found herself occasionally quite hungry in a way that only a roasted spit of seared bicep could sate.


She finished her spell, waiting to feel the euphoric praise of her Lord wash over her once more… but lacked her desired reward.


I know I cast the spell right; I’ve done it a hundred times! She thought desperately. While loyal to her Lord, she knew He was not one to be trifled with and would expect a soul from her soon. While the hours of passion His corporeal presence could offer her was well worth any risk, the punishments He often doled out were not.


The only way the spell would fail would be if he’d already moved on… but I just killed him!


Thwip!


Thwip!


Thwip!


Bursting from the bubbling stew of bile and sinew, three small wooden bolts launched themselves out of her victim’s chest and into her own, forming a tight trio of thin needle-tipped crossbow bolts. Before her shocked eyes, small clockwork mechanisms at the end of each bolt whizzed and whir, cogs spinning as the needles pumped something into her chest… something bad.


Desperately she tore at the syringes, but her vision was already swimming from it hid whatever within the darts. Vaguely, she could see a blood-soaked arm rise from her kills chest, followed by another holding a small crossbow. Crawling from the gaping chest wound was the third Raven, his hood no longer covering his startlingly striking features. A thick Slavic nose sat above a closely cropped goatee, along loosely bound ponytail dangling wetly behind him. His eyes, an arctic gray, gazed into hers as he gave her a small, if tired, smile.


“Looks like pride won the day once more, eh witch?” He said with a deep baritone. “Had you killed Samuel instead of revealing yourself like that, you could have easily taken us all out. But you’re now our captive.”


Desperately struggling against the drugs pumping through her veins, Jotelf stumbled back drunkenly, leaning heavily against a warped tree as she took deep rasping breaths. Her mind’s eye was swimming and unfocused, so weakened by her condition she could hardly even strum the threads of magic connecting her to Samuel, who could easily resist her siren’s calls now they lacked her normal strength of will.


“You taught me a valuable lesson witch, and for that, I will spare your life,” The man continued, slowly easing himself from the corpse of his fallen friend. “The way I figure it, Sammy and I should take you to see what you came all this way to see, turn you over to the Elders so they can decide what to do with you. Between your pet’s head and you yourself, Sam and I have probably racked up an easy two-hundred crown.”


“Just… l-like a crow…” She slurred, struggling to keep her eyes open, to remain focused. “P-p-pick on the dead… like your friend there.”


A look of sorrow briefly flashed across his features before being covered up. The man shrugged, stepping out of the torso fully now. He must have been walking behind him the whole time, using his friend’s cold corpse as a puppet. “Jonathan was a good man; a man who helped rid the world of evil. His wife and unborn child will receive a cut of what would rightfully be his, of that I can assure you.”


“I… know… this…” She gasped her vision growing dimmer by the second. “By the end of this… I’ll have you on your back, screaming… for mercy.”


And she knew that… at least before she faded into the darkness and then knew nothing.

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