The Heartless Dead

Chapter Twenty

Prey

Santon stared down the onrushing gnolls and grit his teeth. They were outnumbered ten to one, at least, and that wasn't even counting the damned scorpions or hyenas. He cast a glance to the skies. Undrella circled overhead dropping vials and potions down onto the scorpion hordes. They exploded upon impact, sending up gouts of thick green and red smoke as they burnt and melted the scorpions into sludge.

"Oxvard, stick with the flank!" Santon ordered. "Zastoran, keep the soldiers standing!"

Oxvard grunted in response and swung his mace out wide, cracking gnoll jaws and teeth. Utarchus and Alkar fought alongside him, swinging falchions and massive hammers in wide, curving arcs. They were wild fighters and had taken many wounds, but Oxvard had managed to keep them relatively whole so far.

Zastoran's angry retort cut across the field. "There are no soldiers left, you reckless dolt!"

Santon scowled. He had known the soldiers and mercenaries wouldn't last long against the Al'Chorhaiv, but they had needed the numbers. Someone had to die out here and he had preferred it wasn't him. "Then keep back with Jamus!"

"I'll show you who needs to keep back!" Zastoran grunted. A gout of flame sprung from his hands, incinerating the oncoming gnolls. They howled in pain and clutched at their faces as fur and flesh melted off of their frames.

"Not bad, old man!" Santon chuckled. He put every ounce of mocking surprise he could into his voice, though in truth, he had known the old cleric more than capable of such spells.

"Not bad?" the old halfling muttered. "Not bad! I'll give you not bad!"

Santon smiled as Zastoran lit up the field again, sending a pack of hyenas running, and setting a trio of massive scorpions alight. Zastoran was a stingy man but he was easily motivated through anger. Though Santon knew he needed the old cleric's healing spells kept in reserve, the fighters amongst them needed a bit of a breather. The gnolls hadn't stopped coming and there was no end to them in sight.

Santon cast a measuring glance at what remained of his forces. Jamus hung back behind Santon with his bow sweeping across the field. He had a pile of arrows around him, pillaged from the dead soldiers and gnolls scattered at his feet. He wore a serious expression, but seemed unharmed. Jamus was a hunter to the core, and though the chaos of an all out battle likely unsettled him, he remained focused. The guy seemed to have no fear.

Utarchus was breathing in great heaving gasps. His falchion was gripped tightly in his hands, but his veins bulged and blood soaked chest and neck. Oxvard leaned over him waving around a golden key and chanting in a commanding, monotone voice. A golden light shone from the key and surrounded Utarchus. His wounds closed, and his breathing steadied. Oxvard nodded at him, and turned back to the gnoll army. Santon breathed a sigh of relief. If he let his sister's betrothed die here she would not be pleased. And Haleen was not a woman you wanted angry with you. He'd be lucky to escape with all his limbs attached.

Alkar - a great beast of a man nearly eight feet tall with bulging muscles the size of melons - gripped his massive hammer in both hands. His face and body was covered with blood, though none of it appeared to be his own. He smiled, though with the bits of flesh and fur clinging to his hammer and face it made him appear crazed. Not that Santon found that surprising. Alkar was crazed.

Dashki was hunkered down in a fox hole behind a boulder near the river. He was filthy, and wore the ears of at least sixteen gnolls around his neck as a trophy. He had been leading the mercenaries in ambushes against the Al'Chorhaiv since the battle started, though now only he was left. It mattered little. Dashki worked better alone.

Zastoran looked harried. His robes were filthy and covered with blood, but his mouth was set in a grim line and his eyes burned with anger. He didn't look likely to fall back into his role of medic anytime soon. It was time to placate the man before he wasted all of his energy. The others were read to take on the gnolls once again.

Santon turned his eyes to the battlefield. The Al'Chorhaiv still had them outnumbered, but they were attacking in small, strangely grouped waves. They weren't working together like a pack. It was as if they had no chieftain. Those gnolls who managed to get across the hills and past Santon or Bree's forces either ran straight into Thrice Hills heedless of the traps and defenses or avoided the town all together and ran right past. It was these last ones that worried Santon the most. The deserters.

The gnolls clearly had the advantage over Thrice Hills. With some simple planning they could easily overwhelm the town. And their leader was said to be a cunning foe. She had taken over her tribe through guile and foul magic, not brute force. Surely she had some bigger plan at work than this?

So why were some of the gnolls fleeing the battle? Was it a ploy? Were they hoping to lead Santon and his troops away from the town? Maybe they weren't fleeing, but circling around in order to surround them...

Santon frowned. No. That wasn't it. They looked scared. More than scared. They looked terrified...

Something wasn't right.

"Jamus! Dashki! To me!"

Dashki left his cover and ran to Santon's side. Jamus stepped forward and let his bow fall silent.

Santon pointed at the deserters. "What are they doing?"

"They flee." Jamus stated.

Dashki shook his head. "It is not in the Al'Chorhaiv's nature to flee!" he roared. "They still command the upper hand! It must be an ambush!"

Jamus shook his head. "No. Do you not see their posture? Can you not smell their fear? They are on the run."

"Never!" Dashki shouted in outrage.

"They are prey," Jamus retorted calmly.

"Prey?" Santon asked.

Jamus nodded.

"So what's hunting them?"

Jamus cocked his head to the side in a rare show of surprise. "The predator," he stated, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

A predator? Santon frowned. A gnoll tribe was just like Kelmarane, or any other human settlement. Together they had no major predator, but they could be killed by many different creatures if they were encountered in small numbers. So what had such a large group of gnolls running for the hills? What hunted gnolls? Bree. But other than her...? Santon suppressed a sigh. He could think of nothing.

Santon scanned the horizon. He saw scorpions of all shapes and sizes, hyenas, as well as gnolls and flinds. No sign of anything strange. No massive dragons or hydras. No thundering herd of aurochs. No flock of harpies. No brush fires.

A massive scorpion the size of a wagon burst from the crags of the Brazen Peaks. It was opalescent and had red designs scrawled all over its carapace. Atop it rode a gnoll bitch armoured in chitin plates.

Santon raised an eyebrow. That had to be Ahrikvask, Chieftain of the Al'Chorhaiv. Dashki had told him plenty of tales about her. Oh, how he longed to fight her one on one! Or one on two, if he counted her rather impressive looking mount. But now was not the time. If she had taken the field than the Al'Chorhaiv's numbers must be dwindling. So where was the -

"There." Jamus said. He raised his finger and pointed to a black shape on the horizon. It was far away. Very far. Little more than a smudge in the sky. But it grew in size with startling speed. Whatever it was it was moving fast.

Santon froze. A shiver trailed its way down his spine.

He had a bad feeling about this.