The Beast of Shrouded Vale

An Onward Bound Adventure, by Alex Keown
Illustrations by Sara Banahan

Ptuh.

A thick glob of viscous tobacco juice hit a stone that was half buried in the thick, moss-covered ground. Oswin Splitrock pushed the wide brim of his dark hat back off his brow and wiped the sweat from his forehead and eyes with his thick and calloused hands. It was hot. Shrouded by a thick canopy of leaves and plant life, the interior of the Kindala forest was usually cool. But, not today.Splitrock had been in pursuit of his quarry for several days and he as hot and tired.

He blew his breath out through his thick facial hair and reached over with his knobby hand to scratch behind the ears of his canine companion, a cufíochmhar, a large breed of dog bred for battle by the dwarves of Ironshod Mountain.

 

“It’ll be over soon, dawg,” Splitrock said absently. “We’ll find the bastard, I’ll tell ya.”

The golden brown-colored dog, about the size of one of the wolfhounds the wealthy merchants of St. Graves used for hunting, whined softly in pleasure as the dwarf scratched behind its ears.

“We’ll find him and bring him back to the Justicars for a proper hanging, we will,” the dwarf went on as he took a few moments to rest under the tall trees that towered into the sky.

Splitrock spit out another glob of tobacco juice at the same rock and then took a pull from a canteen that hung from a strap across his shoulders. After taking a swallow of the cool water in his canteen, water he filled up with only a few hours ago after fording the chilly Kindala River, Splitrock decided it was a good time to take a break and eat a quick meal. He spit out the chaw in his mouth and pulled out some biscuits and dried beef from his satchel. He tore into the food, making sure to share some of the beef and water with his companion. As he ate, he rested against the bole of a large tree. A tri-barreled shotgun was at his side, the stock on the ground and the barrels resting against the tree.

After he finished eating, Splitrock stuck another wad of the Mahris farm smokeless tobacco in his mouth and began to chew on it. Then, he pulled his heavy-bladed belt knife from its belt sheath and began to absently whittle at a branch he picked up from his resting site. He hadn’t gotten too far stripping the bark from the branch when he heard a low growl from Dawg. It was a growl of warning. He dropped the chunk of wood to the ground and quickly sheathed the knife. He grabbed his shotgun from its place by the tree and went into a defensive crouch. He scanned the tree line all around to pinpoint the threat of Dawg’s warning.

It wasn’t too hard to determine the threat. Dawg’s teeth were bared and his forelegs were bent as if he was prepared to charge. Splitrock scanned the area where Dawg was pointing and saw more than a dozen red-hued creatures. Globluks. Dawgs deep-throated growls turned to challenging barks as the creature came into view. Standing between three and four feet tall, Globluks look like walking salamanders, although with short tails. This could be trouble, Splitrock thought. He rose to stand beside Dawg.

“Git. My business ain’t with you. Git, afore it gets ugly and I turn this green forest red with your reptile blood,” Splitrock shouted, his shotgun firmly in his grip.

The Globluks, 15 of them in total, didn’t appreciate Splitrock’s warning. The creatures hissed a challenge and began to move toward the dwarf and canine.

“Garn,” Splitrock swore as he spit another wad of tobacco juice on the ground.

The dwarf allowed the advancing Globluks to close the distance, then raised the tri-barreled weapon and fired his first shot at the lead Globluk. The shotgun kicked in the dwarf’s powerful and steady grip. Flame burst from the bottom-left barrel as the projectile rocketed toward the Globluks. The red projectile streaked toward the first few Globluks who approached. The shell hit the leading creature and exploded in a white flash, sending waves of concussive force outwards. The first Globluk disappeared in a red mist, the force of the explosion obliterated the small creature. The two other Globluk who happened to be in close proximity were hurled to the ground from the concussive force. One was mortally injured from the blast, its left side burned and battered. The other salamander-like Globluk, the one on its left side, was tossed to the side like a leaf in the wind. It hit the ground hard. While it still moved, it was down for the count.   

Some of the Globluks that had been advancing slowed following the explosive shot, but the majority continued to charge Splitrock and his dog. The dwarf fired two more times. Both quick blasts came from the top barrel of the weapon. Normal rounds of shot flew across the forest glade. The lead pellets tore through two more Globluks. The force of each shot was powerful enough to throw the small creatures back a few feet before they hit the ground, dead, their life’s blood pouring from the many wounds on their small bodies.

The charging Globluks closed the distance and were upon the dwarf and his canine companion. Dawg leapt into action, hurling itself at the closest creature. The cufíochmhar outweighed the Globluk and bowled the creature over. Dawg turned and began to snap at the Globluk with his powerful jaws. The creature’s short legs were no match for the powerful gait of the cufíochmhar. The large canine was on the salamander-esque Globluk and within moments, it was over. Dawg rose from his kill, blood dripped from his snarling maw as he looked for his next opponent.

Two Globluks came at Splitrock. The dwarf swung his shotgun toward the smaller creature and cracked it in the face with the butt of the weapon.  Driven by the dwarf’s broad shoulders, the heavy wooden stock crashed into the face of the Globluk, blood and bits of its sharp teeth flew from its mouth as it went down, stunned from the impact of the blow.

The other creature came in hard and fast but halted a few steps away from Splitrock. It made a gurgling noise then thrust its head forward. A glob of a viscous liquid flew from its mouth toward the dwarf. Splitrock was familiar with the Globluks and knew enough of their capabilities, so he was ready for the move. He lowered his head and pushed it toward the creature’s open mouth. The mucus-like globule landed on the dwarf’s wide-brimmed hat but it didn’t drip down onto his face. Splitrock could feel that gelatinous gunk begin to harden on his hat. If it had gotten into his face, it would have hardened and caused him to suffocate.

“Slimy, bastard,” Splitrock growled at the Globluk. “I’ll show you how to spit.” With that, the dwarf responded in kind. Except, instead of a mucus that could harden, Oswin Splitrock spat his tobacco chaw in the face of the Globluk. Then, he swung the shotgun barrel toward the creature and pulled the trigger. The weapon bucked in his hands as the shot burst forth in a blast of fire and smoke. The small creature had no chance as the lead pellets shredded its body into a pulpy mess.

Within a matter of moments nearly half of the Globluk force was down. Dawg tore after another of the creatures and a few broke and ran. The one that had been stunned by the bash to the face from the shotgun butt was still in the fight. The creature lashed out with its claws, slicing into Splitrock’s thigh. Blood welled up on his leg from the gashes left by the sharp claws of the creature. The Globluck also snapped its head forward to bite the dwarf. Its bloodied mouth was still tender after having several teeth knocked out by the butt-stroke, so it wasn’t as able of applying as much bite pressure as normal. Still, the creature found its mark, biting through the thick leather of his duster into the dwarf’s muscular forearm.

The wounds were not serious but that didn’t stop the dwarf from bellowing in anger. He tried to throw the smaller creature off his arm, but it held fast with its broken mouth. He did the only thing he could, the dwarf bit back at the creature. His teeth clamped onto the creature’s small, rounded ear and bit as hard as he could and violently thrashed his head from side to side, much in the way he had seen Dawg do so many times over the years. Splitrock’s violent shaking tore away part of the creature’s ear. The smaller Globluk howled in pain. When it opened its mouth to scream, it released its toothy grip on the dwarf. The Globluk fell to the ground. It raised a clawed hand to protect its injured ear and snarled at Splitrock. The dwarf’s blood dripped from its jaws. Splitrock’s mouth was also bloody. He spit out the bit of the ear and snarled. The creature snarled back and made ready to spring at the dwarf, but was bowled off its feet by the fierce cufíochmhar who came to his master’s aid. Dawg’s full weight slammed into the injured Globluk and drove it to the ground. His hungry jaws clamped onto the creatures throat and began to thrash. The pitiful creature’s throat was torn open by the canine’s powerful teeth.

Splitrock spared his hound a quick glance and noticed that his rear leg was covered in the viscous liquid the Globluks spit at their enemies. The canine’s movements were impaired from the hardened saliva but he was still a formidable foe.

“That’s a good Dawg,” Splitrock said affectionately to his faithful canine companion.

The dwarf winced from his wounds as he turned to face the remaining Globluks. There were five left in the clearing, although Splitrock guessed that the few that broke and ran might be calling for more of its kind. Three of the remaining Globluks began to spread out in hopes of taking the dup from multiple sides. Two of them were still close together. The dwarf swung his shotgun toward those two in hopes of tearing them apart with a couple of blasts from his trusty weapon. But that didn’t happen. He put his finger on the trigger and nothing happened. It was a misfire. Splitrock heard the click of his finger pulling the trigger, but the shell never went off.

“Dammit,” the dwarf growled at his misfortune.

The Globluks certainly sensed that something was amiss with the deadly weapon. The two who were close together came running toward the dwarf. His shells were not firing and he had never reloaded the single-shot concussion barrel. He still had one barrel left to use, though. Splitrock pulled the trigger for that barrel and a blast of arcane energy burst forth. The bolt of energy had a reddish purple hue. It slammed into the first Globluk. For a brief moment the forest denizen had a faint glow of the bolt’s color, then it burst into flames. The Globluk that had been closest to it was also impacted by the arcane bolt. The witchfire engulfed that poor creature as well. Both were quickly consumed by the other-worldly flames and their charred corpses fell to the ground.

The last three Globluks continued to advance, although after seeing the blast of arcane energy they shifted farther apart.

A bloodied Splitrock was now holding a shotgun that needed attention before it could be used again. The weapon’s arcane power would need several minutes time to recharge and the misfired shell would need to be removed before it could be shot again. He also had no time to reload another of the explosive rounds into the chamber before the Globluks would be on him. Besides, if he used that type of round in close quarters, he and Dawg would also be affected from the explosive force. Splitrock dropped his tri-barreled shotgun to the ground as he and Dawg faced the oncoming Globluks. If the creatures could squeal with glee, they would have when they saw the dwarf drop his weapon. They closed the ground in a matter of moments.

But moments were all a seasoned warrior like Splitrock needed. As soon as he dropped the shotgun, he flipped back the fronts of his leather duster and whipped out his large hunting knife and a hand axe, both of which had been hanging from his belt under the folds of his coat. The hunting knife, with its 10-inch clipped blade, was held point down in his left hand and in his right, was the small axe. Splitrock and Dawg met the charging Globluks head on. The cufíochmhar raced toward the Globluk on the right as best he could due to the hardened liquid on his hind leg. Even though his gait was off, Dawg was determined to take down the Globluk. The cufíochmhar leapt toward the Globluk but that bad leg hindered the impact. He struck the Globluk but it wasn’t hard enough to knock the creature prone. The Globluk was able to step aside just enough to deliver strikes with its claws down dog’s flank. Dawg yelped in pain as the creature’s claws raked long lines in his flesh.

That yelp was enough to distract an already wounded Splitrock. He lashed out with his large knife at the Globluk on his left side but the creature slid underneath his slice and answered the dwarf’s attack with his own claws. Splitrock’s leather duster blocked most of the damage but not all. In addition to the raking claw attack, the Globluk let loose with its viscous spit that caught the dwarf’s side and under his arm. Splitrock could feel the liquid hardening on his coat and knew that it was likely to impair his movement. He would have to end this fast if he and Dawg were going to survive. He wildly swung the axe at the Globluk on his left, the blade missed but it forced the creature to back away. But, it also gave the other Globluk a chance to attack. The creature began to spit its mucus at the dwarf’s face. Splitrock was just a little too fast though. As the mucus-like projectile left the creature’s mouth, it met the hardened hammer-like end of Splitrock’s axe that he had swung in a backhanded fashion at the Globluk. The mucus splattered against the hammer-head but the dwarf’s powerful swing drove it right back into the creature’s open mouth. By instinct, the Globluk bit down on the weapon and its teeth, what little were left after being smashed in the mouth with the weapon, became glued to the metal weapon. The creature panicked and furiously began trying to pry the weapon out of its mouth.

Splitrock turned his attention to the other Globluk. He flipped the knife from his left to his right hand and eyed the other Globluk. He approached the creature in a low crouch, the blade in front. He slowly moved the knife back and forth to distract the creature. As he hoped, the Globluk became fixated on the moving blade and didn’t pay close attention to Splitrock’s slow advance. The dwarf closed the distance between them. Quick as a snake, Splitrock slashed at the Globluck with his blade. The keen edge of the dwarven-forged steel sliced through the torso of the creature. The wound was long and deep but it was not fatal, at least not immediately.

The Globluk shrieked in pain as the blade sliced through skin and muscle, down to its ribs. The creature clutched the wound with its right hand, but lashed out at the dwarf with the razor-sharp claws of its left hand. Splitrock stepped and felt the breeze of the creature’s strike pass his midsection. If it had hit, those claws would have torn him open and his guts would have spilled out onto the forest floor in a steaming pile. Due to its efforts to stem the flow of blood from its wound, the Globluk was slightly off balance with the force of its attack. That provided Splitrock the opportunity he needed. The dwarf stepped within the creature’s reach and thrust the 10-inch blade into the bottom of the creature’s jaw. The sharp blade pierced through the bottom of its mouth and drove up into the Globluk’s brain. Its legs went limp and the Globluk sagged against the dwarf until he allowed it to collapse, sliding off his blade, in a dead heap.

Splitrock turned toward the remaining Globluks. He saw Dawg standing over the Globluk he attacked. Blood and chunks of dead Globluk dripped from the cufíochmhar’s jaws. Splitrock saw Dawg had taken a few more wounds to his flank for his efforts. That hind leg that had been covered with the Globluk mucus was stiff and would need to be tended to before the animal could move with ease.

The remaining Globluk, the one that had Splitrock’s axe in its mouth, was on the ground struggling to remove the weapon that had become stuck in its mouth due to the hardened mucus on the back of the weapon. Although the creature could still breathe through its nose, its movements had slowed considerably given the unexpected dental ornament. Splitorck wiped the blade of his knife on his coat and sheathed the weapon. He walked toward the animal and grabbed the two-foot haft of his weapon with both hands.

“Hold still, dern ya,” he growled at the creature who suddenly became compliant.

He braced a leg against the Globluk’s chest, then the dwarf yanked with all his strength. At first nothing happened, other than the Globluk was pulled hard into the dwarf’s thigh but a split second later, the axe popped free with a sickening tearing sound. The axe had been pulled free but a number of the creature’s teeth and part of its cheeks came with it. The Globluk writhed in pain on the forest floor and clutched its ruined face.

Splitrock looked down at the defenseless Globluk with a mix of anger and pity.

“I told ye bastards that things’d get ugly and the forest would run red with yer blood, didn’t I, ye stupid thing. Now look at ya,” he said as he swung the bloodied axe and put the Globluk out of its misery.  

Splitrock picked up his shotgun and motioned for Dawg to join him back by the tree where they had been eating. He eased his weary body down against the tree and pulled out a flask of a bluish liquid. He pulled the stopper and took a big swig. His aches immediately eased and the wounds on his body began to close as the magical healing potion took effect.

The wounds he had received from the Globluks were not life threatening. Had he been back in St. Graves, he would not have used a valuable potion. There were certain roots and herbs he could have found in the forest that could have been used to advance the healing but Splitrock didn’t have that kind of time. He had a job to do. 

“C’mere, boy,” he said to Dawg. He cupped his hand and put a little bit of the potion in it and allowed Dawg to lap it up. The cufíochmhar’s wounds began to heal. “We’ll rest a while. That will give me time to get this damned spit off’n us.”

Splitrock went to work on clearing the mucus from Dawg’s fur and then set about cleaning his axe and clothing. As he worked, Splitrock thought back to why and Dawg were hunting in the forest. Only a few days had gone by since Natasha Orlain had entered his place of business, Splitrock’s Warchest, which was located on the northern edge of Deal Square in the Midtowne portion of St. Graves. The dwarf was one of the most noted weaponsmith’s in all of St. Graves. He was particularly known for the blades he forged but was also a capable gunsmith in his own right. Orlain was the proprietress of one of the most prosperous silver shops in the city, Orlain Silversmiths, which was known for its fine serving sets made from silver and other precious metals. Orlain, a human woman of middle years, was well-known to Splitrock. She served as Midtowne’s representatives to the St. Graves Council of Citizens. The two were friendly, but not necessarily friends.

“Councilwoman Orlain. What brings ye to me shop this day? Splitrock asked, looking up from a whetstone he was using to sharpen a newly forged dagger. He was seated at a large workbench that was behind a display of the various blades he had made at his armory.

Orlain stood a moment, taking in the activity that was going on at the Warchest. In addition to Splitrock, there were several others working at the armory, apprentices to the dwarven master of his craft. Orlain knew of Splitrock’s reputation for the craftsmanship of his weaponry, as well as his oft times gruff behavior with those who held positions of authority, as well as his soft spot for youngsters who needed a firm guiding hand.

“Master Splitrock, I have come here on a personal matter. Is there a place we can talk freely?”

“Malkum,” Splitrock hollered over his shoulder, his eyes barely leaving those of Orlain. “Come finish putting the final edge on this blade and see it delivered to the house of Petyr Gramaan in Uptown.”

A young gnome hurried over to the side of the dwarf and took the dagger and its scrimshawed handle made from the bone of some unknown creature from Splitrock. He took over the dwarf’s seat after the master of the shop rose.

“Come with me,” Splitrock said as he nodded his head toward a door in the rear of the shop. He wiped his hands on a towel to clear any sediment from the blade’s honing as he led her to a small enclosed courtyard surrounded by high stone walls. At one end of the courtyard were a number of targets and target dummies positioned against a rear all and a set of tables at the other end where they entered. Even to an untrained eye, it was clearly the spot where weapons were tested before final delivery.

“Ain’t no one coming out here. This will be private enough,” Splitrock said. “’sides, I could use a bit of air.”

On one of the tables was a large stone pitcher of cool water and several mugs. He poured a mug for Orlain and one for himself, then sat down on a plain stone bench. He pointed to a spot on the bench next to him and motioned for the taller woman to sit.

“Don’t keep nothing stronger than water around here. Ain’t too smart mixin’ ale or whiskey with a forge and a buildin’ full of weapons. ‘Specially if some of those weapons are guns.”

“Yes, how prudent,” Orlain said as she settled next to him on the bench. “And, do you make many of these types of weapons?”

“A few. I make ‘em to order. Some guns are cheaply made, ‘specially those that only give you one shot afore you have to reload. But not mine. I build ‘em for repeated use and I build ‘em to last,” Splitrock said in a matter of fact manner that was not in any way braggadocios, just a statement of fact.

“I do hear good things about your products, Master Splitrock. And your shotgun, I have seen you with it before, you made that?”

“Naw, not that’n. That’s made by this little gnome gal who is real good at makin’ things. She’s my friend and she made it fer me after me previous shotgun got broke in a bit of a scrap with basta--, er, some o’ them fey that came over with Leviathan in the War of the Beasts,” Splitrock said.

He waited for a moment then went on, “That what you was here for? Wantin’ a shooter ‘o some kind?”

“No, Master Splitrock, I’m afraid I’m not here for your services as a craftsman. I’m here about another skill set for which you have become known,” Orlain said with a heavy sigh.

“I’m listening,”

“You are known for finding people and bringing them back. Usually these people you are sent for have violated the law in some way.”

“Go on,” Splitrock said, having an idea of what was coming. It was no secret he had gone after bounties for city leaders or for well-funded people who wanted justice when the laws of the land failed them. Hunting bounties, or dealing in mud as it was often referred to out in the Frontier, was partly how he financed the opening of his weapon smithy.

“This is not about hunting down outlaws,” Orlain said up front. “Some of my craftsmen are missing. They went into Kindala for a hunt and have not returned. They are overdue by a week and the work at my silver shop has falledn behind. Plus, they have families.”

“Lots ‘o forest out there and lots ‘o things in that forest. Some good, a lot of it bad.”

“Yes. It had occurred to me that something bad may have befallen them. They were, I mean are, good men. Their families and I are concerned and I would like you to find them. They were to have gone boar hunting. They had a camp at Lake Uwharrie but I recall hearing them say they would try for boar near the part of the forest known as Shrouded Vale.”

“I know the area. It’s, an interesting area.”

“Will you please help, Master Splitrock? I can pay you handsomely.”

Splitrock didn’t hesitate. He had been in the city for too long and was aching for a little bit of adventure.

“Me an’ Dawg will take a look. We can leave in the mornin’.”

∞∞∞

“Damn infernal Globluk slime,” Splitrock growled as he chipped the last of the hardened mucus from his hat. At first, he used the thick and hard spine of his knife to break the hardened mucus from the small hammer head on the back of his axe. When that was clear, he used that side of his axe to bang his duster and hat free of the gunk. To get the stuff off of Dawg, Splitrock used his strong fingers to break the substance off the animal’s fur. It wasn’t easy, nor was it too gentle, but Dawg endured it. It had taken him nearly two hours of diligent work to remove the stiffened phlegm from Dawg’s hind leg, his axe, his coat, and his hat. But, it was finally done. Splitrock checked his weapons and made sure his shotgun was reloaded, put his duster back on and slapped his hat back on his head. He took a long pull off his water skin, wiped away the little that dribbled onto his auburn-colored beard and whistled for his companion.

“We best be goin’, Dawg. There’s lotsa ground to cover afore nightfall. Besides, this place is beginning to stink,” he said as he looked around at the Globluk corpses, which were beginning to bloat in the afternoon sun. The flies were thickly swarming around the area. The buzzing of the insects drowned out the sound of the wind blowing through the leaves of the trees. Restored by the healing potion and a chance to rest, the duo set off deeper into the forest.

Splitrock’s encounter with the Globluks came two days after he set out from St. Graves in a wagon driven by a friend, a large orc by the name of Grok. They left the city through the North Gate. St. Graves did not have a wall encircling the city due to how the city had expanded over the years. There were four main entry points into the city for merchants and travelers to use, with the North Gate being one of those designated entryways. The North Gate was situated in the older parts of St. Graves, in the area known as Uptown, which is where the city’s administrative buildings were located, along with the institutes of higher learning. It was through this area that the dwarf, orc and cufíochmhar traveled to Kindala. Grok drove Splitrock and Dawg to the edges of the forest in his large wagon and from there, the two had made their way on foot toward Lake Uwharrie, which was a popular place for St. Graves residents to camp in Kindala. When he arrived at the popular campsite, Splitrock quickly learned from others who had been fishing in the area for the past week that the group of people Splitrock was searching for had indeed headed toward Shrouded Vale, as Orlain said.

After a respite at the lake, which included a meal of fresh caught fish kindly provided by one of the campers, Splitrock continued with his journey to Shrouded Vale. The vale was located near the heart of Kindala itself. For the people of St. Graves, the vale has a reputation for being haunted. While there is certainly no evidence that ghosts or spirits reside in the vale, it was certainly a mysterious place.

Splitrock had heard the tales spread by hunters and others who have been forced to spend the night in the vale reported odd sounds, mysterious lights in the woods, and more unexplained and unsolved phenomena. Those who have bedded down for the night in the vale have also awakened in different locations, but often just outside the border of the vale. Splitrock had never experienced this for himself, but after some of the things he had witnessed in his adventures and in the War of Beasts, he knew that anything was possible. There were also stories of a group of explorers from Ironshod Mountain, the dwarven homeland, who had ventured into the vale in search of a reputed vein of mithrum, that precious metal so highly prized for its durability and ability to be enchanted. Splitrock had never paid too much attention to that rumor but if he found a dwarven colony, that wouldn’t be too bad, he thought.

Still, if he was heading into Shrouded Vale, Splitrock did not want to enter blindly. He wanted as much information as possible and there was one place he knew he could find that information – the beast folk. While the beast folk, or beastkin as they are sometimes called, don’t typically have relations with the people of St. Graves, Splitrock knew they would likely have information of humans that trekked deep into Kindala.

The beastkin were not unfamiliar to Splitrock. He had been in their presence before, although it had been some time. The last time he interacted with the beastkin was the War of Beasts, when the forces of Kindala marshalled against the beast known as Leviathan and its fey armies. As he plunged deeper into Kindala, where the known trails began to narrow and become overgrown with brush and ultimately disappear, and the clusters of trees grew thicker, Splitrock knew he would be seen by the beastkin long before he ever saw them.

With the lack of trails in this part of Kindala, Splitrock’s journey slowed. The sounds of the forest were all around him, particularly as the trees grew thicker and closed in around him. For a brief moment, the close quarters painfully reminded him of his youth in the dwarven tunnels of Khandrun’s Mound in the Flint River colony. He shook off that dark memory although he knew it would be something to deal with in the future. He continued on, deeper and deeper into Kindala.

He and Dawg walked for several hours, though they only went a few miles through the dense brush. The dwarf used his axe to blaze a trail through the woodlands. The sharp and heavy blade close through branches, vines and other brush that hindered the movement of his burly frame through the growth. Through it all, the well-trained and faithful Dawg stayed close by his side instead of wandering ahead through the brush. The deeper they plunged into the thickets of trees, the quieter the sounds of the forest grew. Although a dwarf bred to the tunnels and mines of Flint River and Ironshod Mountain, Splitrock was no stranger to the forests of Aeden. His travels had taken him from coast to coast and through all manner of woodlands. He knew that quieter a forest grew, that danger could lay just around the corner.

It didn’t take too long before Splitrock found the reason the forest had gone quiet. As he and Dawg burst through a rather thick meeting of tree branches, the two of them found themselves in a small clearing. Only, they weren’t alone. Seated on a fallen log was the largest owl Splitrock had ever seen. Covered in mottled-brown feathers that blended in closely with its surroundings, it had to have been nearly five-feet tall. It was certainly taller than the dwarf, who was tall for a dwarf at about half-a-foot over four feet. This was no ordinary owl, as Splirock quickly realized after a few moments of processing what he saw. It was one of the beastkin of Aeden.

The beastkin, or Beast Folk as more properly known, were animals who had become “woke.” Or, at least that was the way Splitrock had heard it described before. The beastkin were animals who had taken on some humanoid characteristics, such as walking on two legs, a semblance of speech and, for some, an adventuresome spirit that took them beyond the borders of their homeland. While the many types of animals that had become “woke” were varied, in Kindala, their adopted leader was a white tiger named Kiba, although he had taken on some of the trappings of the humanoid world and called himself Prince Kiba. Splitrock hoped Kiba, whom he had never met, or one of his many folk, would be able to help him track down the missing St. Graves craftsmen.

Upon seeing the beastkin in front of him, Splitrock immediately lowered his axe so as not to appear as a threat. He opened his left hand wide showing that nothing was in it and slowly hooked his axe back to his belt, then displayed the open right hand to the giant owl-man.

“Peace to you and your’n, Owl,” Splitrock said. “I was hopin’ I’d run into one of ye. I am hopin’ the beast folks can help me out. I am searching for some folks from the city, humans. They ain’t come back when they said they was gonna, so I’ve been sent to find ‘em. You think Kiba, I mean, Prince Kiba’d be helpin’ me out?”

The owl cocked its head, which had tufts of feathers resembling horns, to the side and peered at him quizzically through its large, golden-colored eyes. It made a series of hoots and screeches and spread its wings outward. These were no ordinary wings. The rigid front of the wing bore a resemblance to a humanoid arm that ended in a hand and long feathers extended backwards. The owl opened its hands in a similar manner to Splitrocks. The large owl beastkin continued with its hot and screeches. It took a while, but Splitrock realized that the beastkin was speaking to him, but it wasn’t a language with which he was familiar. However, he was able to pick up a few words if he listened carefully. He heard the words “dwarf,” “friend,” “come,” and “moot.” The beastkin rose from its perch on the log and motioned with its wing for the dwarf to follow.

“I guess we’d best follow the bird,” Splitrock told Dawg, who stood by the dwarf’s side ever since coming into the clearing.

Splitrock could see the beastkin nodding its head at his comment. Meeting with the beastkin to see if they knew what may have happened to these men from St. Graves was what he wanted in the first place.

“Lead on, we’ll follow. But no dang flying. I’ve got short legs and can’t keep up,” Splitrock quipped, although he wasn’t sure the beastkin understood his joke, or any joke for that matter.

The duo took off after the owl-man or man-owl, Splitrock wasn’t quite sure what the beastkin were, he just knew they were. The golden-feathered beastkin set a brisk pace through the dense forest, despite its short legs. Much like normal owls, this beastkin moved in what appeared to Splitrock to be a series of short hops. Whatever kind of movement it was, the beastkin was adept at it.

They walked for an hour or more through the Kindala, plunging into areas that Splitrock had not ventured to before. The dwarf could tell that the forest floor was sloping downwards, so he figured they were heading into a vale of some kind. They went deeper into the forest and the light grew dimmer. Splitrock wasn’t sure if it was due to the heavy canopy of the tall trees, the slope of the ground, or if the sun was starting its dip below the horizon. He had lost track of the sun’s passage overhead while trekking through the forest and did not have one of those fancy timepieces that fit in a pocket that the gnomes were now making. He fancied having one but never got around to trying to acquire one. His friend Peridot Tinkerwell, the gnome who was able to bind arcane elements into his shotgun, was an impressive and skilled engineer. He had thought of asking her to build one for him at one point. Maybe when I get back to St. Graves I will, Splitrock thought to himself.

The unusual trio, an owl beastkin, the dwarf and his cufíochmhar wound their way down the incline. The dwarf used some of the smaller trees to steady himself as he walked down the uneven forest floor. In some ways it reminded him of exploring the caverns found near Flint River and throughout the Silvercrest Mountains, a range of mountains in the upper midwest of Aeden which included the dwarven homeland of Ironshod Mountain. He slipped a few times on the leaves that covered the forest floor that had fallen in previous autumns. Dawg was much smarter about his descent and kept up with the owl beastkin who had no problems descending, although the owl did use its large wings at times to steady itself.

Soon, they were at the bottom of the incline, in a small clear valley dotted with copses of trees and large boulders. Across the valley Splitrock could make out that the slope leading out of the valley was far rockier than what he had come down. The owl beastkin pointed toward that rocky wall with its left wing and gestured for Splitrock to keep following.

Moot. Safe. Come,” the owl beastkin chirped and hooted at him as it beckoned excitedly toward the wall.

The owl’s hops became a bit more frantic as they apparently neared their destination. They proceeded across the valley. Splitrock looked around and could see numerous two-legged animals walking around the area. There were bears, boars, different kinds of birds, and more. Splitrock had never been around so many of the beastkin at one time – even during the War of Beasts when the beastkin joined in with the people of Aeden against the forces of Leviathan.

When they reached the far side of the valley, which was a walk of about a quarter mile, Splitrock took in the rocky incline. It was almost sheer for about 40 or 50 feet, then began to slope toward the rest of the valley. Along the base of the cliff, which is how Splitrock thought of it, were groups of trees, bushes, and boulders but nothing that appeared to be a meeting place of any kind. The owl beastkin made straight for a thicket of trees. Was this where he was supposed to go, Splitrock wondered? As he got closer to those trees though, he saw they actually camouflaged the opening to a cavern in the cliff face. The owl beastkin motioned for Splitrock and Dawg to follow it into the opening, then disappeared inside.

The dwarf didn’t hesitate. With a “c’mon, dawg,” he plunged into the opening. The owl beastkin led him down a short tunnel and turned aside down a short side passage that led to a chamber of some kind. The dwarf entered and saw the largest stag he had ever seen. If it had been standing, the stag would have been nearly seven feet tall, about the size of an orc. Its large spreading antlers added to its height. But, this stag wasn’t standing. It was seated on a large stone. In its hooves, or hands, Splitrock could not really tell what they were, the stag held a large bound tome.

 

The stag looked up and spoke in near perfect common tongue. “You are most welcome in Safe, Master Dwarf. I am Nichadus, a Hand of Kiba. How may we assist you?”

Years ago, during the War of Beasts, Splitrock had fought alongside the other Hand of Kiba, Ferox, a ferocious wolverine. But he had lost touch with his fellow warrior since the war’s end. Ferox had returned to life in the Kindala and Splitrock had wandered Aeden for some time before settling in St. Graves. During the war, Splitrock learned of the wisdom and guidance Nichadus provided to the beastkin from Ferox. Now, he was face-to-face with the stag that his former comrade-at-arms held in such reverence.

Splitrock removed his hat from his head as a sign of respect for the magnificent stag and the place he was in. “Many thanks, Master Nichadus. I could use some assistance in a personal matter,” Splitrock said. “My name is Oswin Splitrock. I fought alongside yer friend, Ferox, during the War. Fierce fighter, that’n is.”

Nichadus nodded in agreement at the dwarf’s assessment of Ferox’s fighting abilities.

Splitrock went on. “Anyways, I ain’t here to reminisce with old war buddies. I need some help finding some fellers from the city who ain’t been back home in some time. I was told they went up to Shrouded Vale to hunt some boars.”

“Dangerous animals, boars,” Nichadus said as he closed the large tome he had been examining. “Many have died in these parts hunting those creatures.”

“Yeah, I feared the boars may have kilt those boys but I give my word I’d come and find them,” Splitrock said. “But Shrouded Vale is a big place and I could use yer help in findin’ them right quick. Maybe one of yer people who can track well might be able to give me a hand?”

“Shrouded Vale is even more dangerous than boars. There are things in there best left undisturbed, things my people find… wrong,” Nichadus said. “It is not a place that my kind typically goes but we will provide whatever assistance we can.”

“Much obliged,” Splitrock said.

Nichadus rose from his seat and approached the dwarf. His majestic antlers nearly grazed the ceiling as he walked over on his hind legs. Nichadus towered over the dwarf. He was nearly twice his height. It was not a sign of Nichadus exerting his dominance though, but a show of respect by coming over to his guest. Nichadus then did something unusual, he gave a bow to the dwarf and then extended his hoof-like hand to Splitrock in a show of friendship.

“You are most welcome in Safe, Master Splitrock. Your name is well-known to us for your valor in the war against the abomination Leviathan and its ilk. Ferox has spoken most highly of you,” Nichadus said.

“Kind of ‘m to ‘member me,” Splitrock said.

“The memory of beasts is long, the memory of the Beastfolk is even longer, Master Dwarf.”

“I reckon’ so,” Splitrock responded.

“Take rest in Safe and we will provide assistance in helping you find these… hunters,” Nichadus said that last word with a certain distaste. While animals hunted for prey, it was typically for sustenance, mating battles or territorial defense, not sport. The idea of hunting animals, even those not “woke” like the beastfolk, was distasteful to the great stag. “There is food and water for you and your canine friend.”

Nichadus showed Splitrock to a room where he could rest while a guide could be found to take him to the part of Kindala known as Shrouded Vale. The room Nichadus took him to was a small chamber in the cavern that was mostly natural, although the dwarf could make out where tools had been used to widen and smooth out the space. Blankets and furs of various kinds had been placed in the room and there were a few logs and stones placed around the room that must have served as chairs for those who used the room. There was a place for a fire to be lit and a natural chimney to vent the smoke, but the hearth was dark and had not been used for some time. It wasn’t cold in the chamber though, and Splitrock didn’t need the fire. He grabbed a large fur throw (had it come from a fallen beastkin or from a normal animal, Splitrock wondered) and spread it out on the floor. He lowered himself to the ground and leaned back against a log. The owl that brought him to Safe entered the room. The owl was carrying a large flat stone that served as a tray. On the stone was a bowl of fruits of the forest, a pitcher of water for the dwarf with large bowls for both he and Dawg. The owl placed the food down for the grateful dwarf and then left the room.

“Let’s get a lil’ rest, while we ken, Dawg,” Splitrock said as he ate some of the fruit and poured water for the both of them.

Splitrock must have dozed off. Next thing he knew, something was tickling the end of his nose. He lethargically swatted at the irritation. It was most likely Dawg, he thought to himself.

“WAKE!!!” A gravelly, feral voice shouted in the dwarf’s face. The hot breath blew across the dwarf’s auburn-colored whiskers, which vibrated in the pulsing roar of the voice.

Splitrock’s eyes snapped open. His hand immediately went to the shotgun that had been at his side. His fingers groped around but the weapon was not there. It took a moment for Splitrock’s eyes to really focus. The first thing he saw was a red tongue surrounded by a set of wicked-looking sharp teeth. Small beady eyes stared at Splitrock from a dace that at first resembled a brown bear. But within moments, Splitrock knew it was his old comrade-at-arms, Ferox, the wolverine beastkin and right Hand of Kiba.

“You scared, eh, Splitrock? Ferox had you,” the wolverine chidingly said. “You need help. Ferox is here to help, friend Splitrock.”

Unlike Nichadus and his almost eloquent command of the common tongue, Ferox’s speech was more broken and typical of many of the beastkin who found the language of Aeden to be difficult to master with their animalistic anatomy.

“Git off’n me, ye big lummox,” Splitrock roared with a twinkle in his eye as he shoved the heavy creature aside. He glared at Dawg, who was contentedly lying on the fur blanket. “Fat lot of help you are, Dawg. Ye let this dang ol’ rascal get the drop’n me.”

Ferox let out a howl of laughter at his old friend’s feigned anger. “Good see again,” Ferox said following his deep belly laughing.

“Good seein’ ye again, as well,” Splitrock said as he grabbed the muscular creature in his arms and gave a big hug.

After the two enjoyed their reunion, Splitrock thanked Ferox for the hospitality of the beastkin and for the guide he would be provided with on the next stage of his journey.

“I be guide to you,” Ferox said as he placed a massive clawed paw on Splitrock’s shoulder. “Dwarf and beast together again.”

Upon hearing that his old comrade would serve as his guide, the dwarf’s mouth split into a big grin. With an unusual display of excitement, the stoic dwarf’s lips curled back from teeth that were slightly stained from the leaf he chewed, and let out a whoop of excitement.

“Much obliged, Ferox. Me and Dawg be glad to have your company,” Splitrock said with a nod as he tried to regain some of his taciturn disposition, although the corner of his mouth kept threatening to curl into another grin.

“Eat food. Rest, sleep for now. Go in morning,” Ferox said. “Prepare well. Shrouded Vale is dangerous place.” As Ferox spoke, the owl beastkin returned with another plate of food for Splitrok and Dawg, as well as some sustenance for Ferox. The trio ate with gusto and reminisced about their previous exploits during the war. After a while, Ferox stood up to depart the chamber and told his friend he would return at dawn so they could depart.

###

Dawn came early. Usually a light sleeper, Splitrock had to be wakened by Ferox. The chamber was almost pitch black, with just a sliver of the breaking dawn making its way down the natural chimney shaft to light up the cold hearth. The darkness didn’t bother the dwarf though. His kind was accustomed to dark places and had learned to see fairly well with the lack of light.

Splitrock found a large bowl of water had been brought in for him to use to freshen up. He splashed his face in the bowl and used his hands to run the water through the hair on his head before slapping his hat back down. He, Dawg and Ferox ate a light meal. Splitrock gathered his belongings and the trio left.

The group left the valley and Ferox began to lead them in a northeastern direction, toward the area known as Shrouded Vale. The journey out of the vale was a little easier for Splitrock than the way he had been brought in by the owl. Ferox led Splitrock and Dawg up a hidden trail that was largely concealed by brush, rocks and trees. They trudged up the long and winding trail for a little less than an hour until they were out of the vale and on more level ground. The morning sun highlighted the thick canopy of green overhead, while small shafts of light broke through and created sunlit puddles along the forest floor. In all, it was a pleasant enough morning. The air was somewhat cool and a slight breeze blew through the Kindala.

After about half-a-day’s walk, Ferox signaled a halt to rest and eat. They settled comfortably at the base of a large rock and divvied up some food stuff to eat. As they rested, Ferox again reiterated that the place they were headed toward, Shrouded Vale, was a dangerous place.

“My people, we no go there. Bad things happen. Death happen,” Ferox stressed.

Splitrock eyed the wolverine beastkin as he took another chaw of his smokeless tobacco and placed it behind his lower gum. “Ye’ve said that afore. What makes this place so dangerous?”

“Bad things live there. Things like hurt, kill for no reason. Beast and beastfolk kill for reason. This, kill for joy,” Ferox said.

“What is this thing yer talkin’ ‘bout?”

“Not know sure. Some say crazy beastfolk but me no think. Me think this… something else. Think this much worse. From Leviathan,” Ferox said, his voice firm. “Me think this wendigo.”

Wendigo. Splitrock had never encountered one of these abominations before but he had heard a few things about them. Rumors, mostly. But, what those rumors said was not pleasant. From what Splitrock understood, the Wendigo looked almost like walking death. These tall, gaunt creatures appear almost as emaciated versions of some beastkin. But, he knew the Wendigo was something totally separate.  

“Wendigo. Damn. I didn’t know they was still around,” Splitrock said. “I thought they was all killed off in the war.”

“No. Wendigo live,” Ferox snarled and spit in disgust, his hackles spiking in fury. “We kill when can. Wendigo abomination. No deserve life.”

“I reckon so. Well, if we find it, we kill it.”

“Yes.”

Ferox’s single word response was as firm as anything Splitrock had ever heard. He completely understood the beastkin’s disdain for the Wendigo and silently vowed that he would help kill it if able.

After their rest, the dwarf and wolverine beastkin continued to travel toward the Vale. The post-luncheon journey was long as they wound their way through the forest. Splitrock could see the position of the sun shift through the foliage and knew it was getting late into the afternoon. Suddenly, Dawg, who had been cavorting through the underbrush chasing small animals, stood stock still. His tail and ears were completely erect and he began to growl. It was a low growl, not like the growl warning of an enemy, but it was a warning of some kind.

“What is it, Dawg? What’s wrong, boy?”

Ferox halted, looked at Dawg and then sniffed the air. He uttered one word – blood. Splitrock pulled his shotgun from the holster strapped to his back and peered into the forest ahead. He sniffed the air several times but was never able to catch the scent of blood. He trusted the keen sense of smell of his companions and knew that whatever the source was, it must be ahead somewhere.

“Through trees. Ahead. Spread,” Ferox commanded.

They slowly made their way through the brush toward the source of the smell. Splitrock and his companions scanned the area for any sign of threat as they moved through the forest. Without really knowing here he was going, Splitrock followed the lead of Ferox and Dawg, but it wasn’t long before he could detect the coppery odor of blood. And it wasn’t too much longer before Splitrock could see the source of the blood.

As they moved through the trees, the trip came upon a small clearing and found a campsite, or, more precisely, what remained of a campsite. Supplies and bits of tent material were strewn across the area, as if thrown around in a rage of some kind. The carcass of a large boar hung from a thick tree branch. It had been gutted and appeared as if the hunters had been in the process of dressing the animal. Against the tree from which the carcass hung, Splitrock saw another boar spear leaning against the trunk, along with a long bow. The quiver had toppled over and the arrows spilled around the base of the tree. On the ground, Splitrock noticed the haft of a broken boar spear on the ground, but he did not spy the head of the weapon.

Large black flies swarmed around the area, their buzzing highly audible, and the reason was evident. The stench of blood and death hung in the air. The odor permeated everything. It wasn’t the death of the wild board that instigated the odor, it was the slaughtered bodies of hunters that did that.

The remains of several small tents, the kind often used by hunters in St. Graves, were splashed with a dark substance that Splitrock could only assume was blood. And there was a lot of it. The incessantly buzzing flies were attracted to the blood that splattered over the ground, looking more black than crimson. The coppery scent of blood and gore was thick in the air almost palatable, the dwarf thought to himself. He had seen death on the battlefield before, but this was a slaughter. This was not warriors engaged in combat. This was something horrific.

It didn’t take long for Splitrock and Ferox to spy the first body. It was lying face down across the remains of a fire pit that had most likely been dug by the hunters. Its head had been violently twisted around so that it stared over its back. The body was partly charred, which added to the stink of death. It had most likely fallen into the fire after its neck had been broken and had charred a bit before the fire burned itself out. Much of his clothing had burned but his body had not been consumed before the fire had extinguished itself. A cloud of flies took flight as Splitrock rolled the body over with his boot.

“Damn,” he muttered under his breath. He recognized the face. It was Biar Sernaro, one of the missing St. Graves craftsmen he had been looking for. Splitrock knew Sernaro by sight, having run into him countless times over the years.

Sernaro’s corpse and the tents that had been torn asunder were not e only sign of violence in the camp. Everywhere the trio looked they saw death. Another body of one of the craftsmen from the city was slumped against the bole of a tree. The man had died with his hands clasped over a belly that had been torn asunder. The body of one more camper was found on the far edge of the clearing. Another human male, his back had been shredded by something sharp. The bottom part of his right arm was missing below the elbow. It hadn’t been severed, the edges were ragged. Something had torn the arm free.

A fourth body was found about 20 feet from the third one. A spear had been driven through its chest and into a tree. The man’s toes brushed the ground. Whatever had done this had been able to lift the man off the ground as it drove the weapon through the body and deep into the tree. Splitrock could see the glint of steel on the other side of the tree, the tip of the long-bladed spear had been pushed all the way through the body and trunk of the tree.

“These men you look for?” Ferox asked.

“I reckon so,” Splitrock muttered. “Now I got to look for what done did ‘em in and kill it. Otherwise, my conscience won’t let me live with m’self.”

“Wendigo,” Ferox stressed.

“I reckon we gotta kill us a wendigo now,” Splitrock said with firm resolve as he spat out a glob of tobacco juice.

While Splitrock and Ferox looked at the carnage that was the campsite, Dawg, as fierce and loyal a hound as ever was, was rooted to the spot where he stood. The cufíochmhar trembled as his fur bristled. He emitted low growls that were intermingled with whines.

“What’s wrong, Dawg?” Splitrock said with concern in his voice. This was a behavior he had never seen from his stalwart companion, and they had been in many battles together. He scanned the surrounding area in case the animal had spotted the Wendigo, or whatever had slaughtered the hunters from St. Graves. The barrels of his shotgun slowly slid across the terrain. Splitrock’s finger was lightly touching the trigger, ready to apply the few pounds of pressure required to spit death from the barrels of his weapon.

“It’s Wendigo smell. I smell too. Your smell not good as Dawg or me,” Ferox said. “Dawg affected by the Wendigo fear. I smell before. I fight Wendigo before. I not have the fear. It gone now. We must find.”

“You track it by the smell?”

“Aye. I track. I follow scent. We find. We kill,” Ferox said.

“I reckon so,” Splitrock said as he spat another glob of tobacco juice onto the ground.

Splitrock went over to Dawg and roughly patted his friend on the head and whispered soothing words to him. After a few moments, the cufíochmhar began to act more like his usual self. Once that was settled, Splitrock quickly tended to the remains of the St. Graves artisans. He and Ferox gathered the corpses of the men and laid them side by side in the clearing. The one that had been impaled on the tree proved to be something of a challenge. Neither Splitrock nor Ferox were strong enough to pull the spear free from the tree. Splitrock ended up taxing his axe and cutting the shaft of the spear as close as he could to the body. It was a trickier swing than normal because he was trying to avoid hitting the dead body. When he normally swung the axe, he meant to hit a body. Once the shaft had been cut through, it took a few minutes to slide the body off the broken haft of spear and then carry it to the other corpses. Once that was done, Splitrock gathered up some of the larger pieces of tent he could find and covered their faces.

He bowed his head and said a small prayer to Deio. Although not an overly pious dwarf, like most of his kind, Splitrock had a reverence for Deio, who the dwarves called The Great Fire and Forge. Ferox also showed reverence. Although their worship was different, the beastfolk also found devotion in Deio. It was less a formal type of worship and more of an acceptance and honoring of the great primal force, a force they called The Wyld.

“They bury their dead in St. Graves, but we ain’t got the time for that,” he grunted. “Let’s get on after this thing and put an end to this.”

Ferox walked around the camp site sniffing the air. His beastial face was twisted into a scowl as he caught the vile scent of the Wendigo. He motioned for his companions to follow and began to stride northward, deeper into the Vale. Not as experienced a tracker as Ferox, Splitrock was at first unable to notice any kind of trail, but eventually he was able to pick up some clues that something big had deftly made its way through the forest. He began to notice broken twigs and branches, a tuft of what appeared to be a white/greyish-colored fur, slight depressions in the ground, and other signs. But it was Ferox who blazed the trail for the trio, with Dawg’s keen nose providing some help.

As they trekked deeper into the Vale, the terrain became more rugged as the forestlands slowly merged with the foothills leading to the Silvercrest Mountains. The more springy soil of the forest gave way to a rocky and hard packed ground. The trail they followed took them through thick copses of trees, heavy underbrush, and over and around large boulders and then up a steep rise. At several points along the way, Splitrock had to use his hands and feet to safely navigate the path as it ascended the foothills. Although raised in rugged terrain, the footing through this part of the forest was proving to be treacherous. Sweat poured down Splitrock’s face and dripped from his beard as he followed Ferox and Dawg, both of whom moved easier through this terrain. Soon though, they made it to more level ground.

As a sweat-soaked Splitrock created the rise, he could see another dense patch of trees, but this time they were not lush like the forestland they had come through. These trees showed signs of decay. The leaves were withered and the branches and trunks were gnarled and twisted. He could see cracks in the trunks that leaked a sap-like substance of some kind that was a dark green in color. More disturbing was the smell that emanated from the distorted trees and vegetation. It was the smell of rot, decay and death.

“What in the Screaming Abyss? That smells worse than the hind-end of a three-dead day mule that done et nothin’ but that fiery pepper stew the orcs make,” Splitrock exclaimed.

“Wendigo,” Ferox responded. “We near it home. Smell very bad. Smell like death.”

As Ferox explained, the lair of a Wendigo is heavily corrupted by its vileness. The evil of the aberration is so corrupt, that it can twist the very fabric of life, such as what they were seeing with the trees and vegetation in this place where the creature lived.

“Wary. Wendigo here somewhere,” Ferox warned.

Splitrock quickly slid his shotgun from the holster across his back and signaled Dawg. The well-trained cufíochmhar quickly understood Splitrock’s command. The two had traveled together so much over the years that the dwarf barely had to issue any kind of command to the canine. Dawg instinctually knew what the dwarf wanted. The canine took a position close to the dwarf’s left side, as Splitrock slowly panned the tri-barreled shotgun around the tree line.

There was no sound coming from any part of the decayed grove, only the stench of death and decay. It was almost overwhelming for Splitrock. Despite their keener sense of smell, Ferox and Dawg seemed to handle the noxious odor better. His eyes watered as his senses were assaulted by the putrid odor of rot. The tears that collected may have been the reason for Splitrock initially missing an explosion of the decaying vegetation as… something from his worst nightmare burst forth from the wooded area.

Over the years, Splitrock had battled countless enemies, the most horrific being the king of beasts known as Leviathan. What charged at him now was a close second to the horror he felt facing down Leviathan with his companions on that final day of the War of Beasts. The memory of the first sight of the Wendigo was one Splitrock knew would cause him to wake up in a cold sweat for years to come if he survived this day.

What broke through the trees was nothing short of an abomination. It was over eight feet tall, more than twice the height of Splitrock and Ferox. The creature was gaunt and covered in a patchy, grey-colored fur. It had the face of some kind of canine and its head was crowned with a massive set of bone-like antlers that were covered in some kind of visible filth. It had arms that were abnormally long for its body and ended in large talons that were extended at Ferox’s throat.

The End

Splitrock blinked to clear the tears from his eyes and line up a shot on the horrific creature, but in that split second, the Wendigo had closed the gap to Ferox. With a roar straight from the bowels of the Screaming Abyss, the creature’s talons raked across the chest of the wolverine, tearing open long gashes in the beastkin’s torso. The other clawed handdrove straight into Ferox’s gut, folding the beastkin over. The force of the powerful blow took the wind from Ferox as he momentarily slumped over.  

Splitrock howled when he saw his friend double over from the force of the blow and fired off his first shot. The powerful shotgun bucked in his hands and the shot went wide. A few of the large-bore pellets from the shell rattled around the creature’s antlers, but did no damage whatsoever. As soon as Splitrock fired, the fierce cufíochmhar bounded forward and launched itself at the Wendigo. Dawg’s mouth was open wide as he charged at the creature. The Wendigo was faster though. The beast swung at Dawg and caught the animal with a blow on his flank that drove him off his line of attack. Dawg landed hard, rolled over and was back on his feet again, snarling as he raced toward the Wendigo. The abomination’s focus was on the charging cufíochmhar and it failed to see Ferox, who had recovered from the blows. With a ferocious roar of his own, Ferox dove at the Wendigo, his own thick claws aimed at the heart of the beast. The wolverine’s powerful claws scored against the Wendigo’s chest, raking against its tough hide. Black ichor slowly oozed from the wounds.

As Ferox struck, the force of the blows distracted the creature, which allowed Dawg to grab hold of the beast’s left arm in his mighty jaws. The cufíochmhar’s bit down hard, tearing into the emaciated arm of the creature. The Wendigo howled in pain and fury at the wounds he took. The evil creature kicked out at Ferox and drove the wolverine back with clawed foot. It tried to shake Dawg loose, but the cufíochmhar’s jaws were wrapped in a wicked embrace of toothy maw around the beast’s arm. With its right arm, the Wendigo grabbed the scruff of Dawg’s neck and held the cufíochmhar high. Then the beast’s head snapped forward and delivered a stunning bite to Dawg’s throat. Its long teeth gnashed at the cufíochmhar’s hide. Dawg yipped in pain at the force of the bite, but fortunately for the animal, most of the force of the bite was only skin deep. It was bloody and painful, but not serious. Still, it caused Dawg to loosen his grip on the Wendigo’s arm, which allowed the beast to shake the cufíochmhar loose.

“Fire and Forge,” Splitrock bellowed as he saw his companions in danger. The dwarf snap-aimed the tri-barreled shotgun at the Wendigo and let loose with two shots. This time, Splitrock’s aim was true. The shot from both shells struck the Wendigo in its torso. The shot didn’t have time to spread much, so almost all of the pellets slammed into the Wendigo’s chest.

The Wendigo staggered backwards several feet from the force of the blasts, but caused no real damage to the creature other than knocking loose some tufts of its fur.

“The heart. Heart must be destroyed,” Ferox yelled as he launched another attack against the Wendigo. The wolverine lashed out at the Wendigo’s thick legs with his fierce claws in an attempt to trip the beast up at the same time Dawg charged back into the fray.

“I hit the damn thing in the heart for all the damn good it did,” Splitrock muttered as he moved toward the Wendigo.

It was a fierce battle between Ferox, Dawg, and the Wendigo. As soon as the Wendigo was able to stave off an attack from one, the other snapped and slashed at the abomination. With the Wendigo focused on the two animals, Splitrock maneuvered himself behind the beast and sprang forward, driving the butt of his shotgun into the small of the creature’s back. Splitrock could hear bone crack from the power of the blow. The dwarf also felt the power of the impact in his arms. When the butt of his weapon slammed into the beast, it felt as if he had tried to knock through a cavern wall with the blunt instrument.

The wendigo bellowed. It whirled and lashed out at Splitrock. Its taloned hand smashed into the side of his head. Two of the claws tore flesh and hair from the dwarf’s head. His wide-brimmed hat went flying one way and the shotgun another, as the dwarf was sent sprawling from the force of the blow.

Bloodied, but not bowed, the grizzled dwarf rose to his feet. The shotgun was more than a dozen feet away. He believed he could reach it, but so far, the powerful weapon had not done the trick against this creature. Splitrock unslung his axe and unsheathed the dagger and charged the beast. The well-forged axe blade cut deep into the side of the Wendigo. Ichor poured from the wound as Splitrock tore the blade free and swung again. The beak of the weapon cut deep a second time. The blade of the hunting knife also scored against the Wendigo, slicing the back of its leg, scraping bone.

With tooth, claw and muscle, Ferox, who bore numerous wounds, tore into the Wendigo. Splitrock had seen the wolverine in combat many times, but he was awed by the beastkin’s sheer ferocity and resilience. Dawg also renewed his attacks, despite the wounds the cufíochmhar had suffered.

Although wounded, the wendigo was far from finished. It dealt blow for blow with the companions. Its talons, teeth and antlers were covered in the blood of the three companions. All four of the combatants were covered in blood – their own, as well as that of their enemy. The three companions were also tiring from the combat, but the wendigo did not seem to suffer from the same level of exhaustion.

After picking himself up from another blow that sent him reeling, Splitrock remembered Ferox’s urgent reminder that the wendigo’s heart had to be destroyed before the creature could be finished. The only way to do that, he realized, was to get the creature on the ground. The beast stood taller than all three of them and had to be brought down. The dwarf again used the distraction of his two companions to attack again. This time though, he dropped his hunting knife and swung the axe with both hands at the back of the Wendigo’s leg – the same leg that had previously been wounded. The blade struck true and shore through the back of the beast’s leg, shattering its knee from behind. The Wendigo reared up in pain and then the leg collapsed. The Wendigo fell backwards with the wolverine on top of him. Ferox had been clinging to its torso with his claws and gnashing at the beast’s chest. Dawg, who limped from his wounds, moved in on the downed Wendigo and dug his teeth into the beast’s shoulder. More ichor flowed and filled the mouth of the cufíochmhar.

The Wendigo was down, but still not done. With a ferocity of its own, the creature lashed out with a stiff left hand. The talons thrust deeply into the side of Ferox. Blood welled around the wendigo’s fingers as it tried to reach as deeply into the wolverine as possible and tear out the beastkin’s heart. Ferox gasped in pain as the claws dug into his body. He rolled away as he tried to escape the agony of the Wendigo’s attack. Blood spewed from the wounds.

Again though, Splitrock saw an opportunity. The attack on Ferox exposed the chest of the Wendigo and Splitrock wasted no time. He swung the axe again with both arms. The keen edge of the blade struck true. It cleaved through the Wendigo’s ribs. He struck again and again. Each blow tore into the creature’s chest. Bits of the beast’s ribs flew with every strike and within moments, Splitrock could see the heart. It didn’t look like any heart he had seen before. It was black and shriveled, like a beating prune of some kind.

The dwarf plunged his hand into the open cavity and grasped the beating heart of the Wendigo and then yanked with all his might. At first, Splitrock was afraid that his effort was in vain. Nothing happened. But within seconds, he was falling backward, the heart clutched tightly in his grasp. On his back, the dwarf extended his arm in the air and held the prize for his companions to see. Despite having been ripped free from the chest of the Wendigo, the heart continued to slowly beat. Black ichor leaked from the organ as it slowly pumped in Splitrock’s hand.

The dwarf was terrified to see that the heart still beat. But what happened next, terrified him even more. Even missing a heart, the Wendigo was not destroyed. The creature was attempting to rise from where it had fallen. It rolled its head and snapped its jaws at Dawg, tearing chunks of flesh from the side of the cufíochmhar.

Weakened by the wounds he took, Ferox sprang toward the Wendigo and shouted that the heart had to be destroyed by fire before the creature would truly be finished. Splitrock knew what he had to do. He rolled to his feet and searched the area for his shotgun that had fallen earlier in the fight. He raced toward the weapon and grabbed it, just as he heard Ferox scream in pain as the Wendigo once again ripped into the wolverine with its claws.

Splitrock threw the beating heart onto the ground and aimed his shotgun at the withered organ. With a squeeze of his finger, the fiery bolt from the manna crystal in his weapon was triggered. The mystical beam flew from the third barrel of the shotgun and lit up the Wendigo’s heart. The beating organ began to glow a reddish, orange color, then burst into fire. At the same time the heart began to burn, the empty chest cavity of the Wendigo began to smolder and then flames poured forth from the wound.

In moments it was over. The arcane power of the manna bolt turned the heart into ash. The body of the Wendigo was also consumed by fire. After taking a few moments to observe that the beast was truly dead, Splitrock turned to his companions. Both Ferox and Dawg were badly hurt. They bled from dozens of wounds and Splitrock could hear a wheezing sound coming from the chest wound of his beastkin friend. The lung had likely been punctured by the Wendigo’s talon.

With a word of thanks to Deio, the Great Fire and Forge for being prepared, Splitrock removed more healing potions from his pouch and tended to his friends. The three were exhausted from the ordeal. As they lay in a pool of sun, each of them slipped into a deep sleep, while they allowed the arcane healing to take effect.

Hours later they awoke. The sun still shone overhead and that stench of death and decay was waning as this part of Shrouded Vale seemed to be trying to heal itself. The trio dug into their provisions and hashed out plans for what was to come next.

The next morning, they said their goodbyes.

“You get on back to yer people. I ain’t got too much goin’ on at home, so I think I’ll poke around the Vale a while. Heard tale of a group of my people from Ironshod Mountain come out this way. Don’t know if it’s true‘r not, but me and Dawg aim to take a look,” Splitrock said.

Having survived another battle together, the two warriors clasped hand and paw around each other’s forearms and said their goodbyes. Ferox began the trek back to Safe, while the dwarf turned toward the heart of Shrouded Vale.

“C’mon Dawg, let’s go.”

The End

Onward Bound is Trademark and Copyright Panda Rage Productions, 2019-2020

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