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140 Actual Incinerator Way, Apt. 23
Great Inferno Village, FL
Nine Parts Bluster
“Perception is reality, my friend,” Senesio said, straightening the ridiculous hat on his head. Looked more like he was wearing the corpse of a beaver than the latest in fashion from the emperor’s court at Ba Seng. Except for the gold tassels, of course. Even in the dim light that managed to filter down through the thick canopy above, it was hard to miss those tassels.
“The people will see me and they will perceive such things that cannot be bought. Wealth, I have, but prestige, respect, I must yet achieve.” He gestured towards the churned square of mud and discarded debris that formed the center of town. “The people will see me and they will perceive that I am their noble savior, come at long last to rid them of the horror that plagues them.”
“I perceive you look ridiculous,” Chen said. Couldn’t say he was surprised, however. If four years in the man’s employ had taught him anything it was that he was nothing if not unorthodox. Also that there was a good deal of money to be made solving other people’s problems for them. And that when it came to solving problems for coin, the work was plentiful. But mostly the four years had taught him that his employer was unorthodox. And that was putting it politely. Many others had put it in terms unfit for more sensitive ears. Unfit for anyone’s ears, really. Senesio Suleiman Zhao was the kind of man one either loved or hated, though the hated camp seemed to be gathering ever more followers of late.
“Ridiculous? My dear Chen, my ever-faithful biographer, my most-talented spinner of tales and wrangler of words, surely you’re mistaken. Senesio Suleiman Zhao is not a man to look ridiculous,” he rose to his full height, grasped the collar of his coat in both hands and drew it tight against his shoulders. “He is a man to look respectable, a man to look noble. He is a man to look…to look…” he snapped his fingers, searching for the right words.
“To look like he’s got a dead beaver on his head.”
Senesio shook his head at that, the hint of a disappointed smile pulling at his lips. It was about as genuine as a whore’s pillow talk. Or, at least it was to Chen. Maybe it was because he’d a formal education in Ba Seng, a luxury most could never hope to afford. Or maybe it was because he’d once been a prominent scribe, faithfully recording the day to day proceedings of life in the imperial court. Or maybe, just maybe, it was because he’d been exiled from decent society and cursed to spend the last six years rubbing shoulders with every drunkard and thug from here to the Yupiak wastes. But probably it was because, admit it or not, he’d come to know Senesio like no other. Come to peer through his extravagant, carefully crafted persona to the conniving, grasping, rotted core beneath. Probably it was that. Either way, Senesio’s smile, along with most of his charms, had long ago lost their effect on Chen.
“Perception is reality, dear Chen, or, at least it is for this lot of fatherless drunks. Behold, a master at work.” And with that he swept the beaver-hat from his head in a dramatic flourish. One of the dangling gold tassels dipped into the mud, staining it black as bile. “Shit!” Senesio cursed, producing a handkerchief to fuss at the mess.
“A master, eh?”
“Just make sure you’ve your damned quill ready, scribe.”
Ah, there was the true Senesio, if just for a moment before he turned away, pulling a gleaming smile onto his face. He stepped atop a crate, clapping his hands to attract the attention of the townsfolk of whatever this ancestors-forsaken town was called.
Might’ve been perception was reality, but even a blind beggar could perceive the only reality of this place was a sad one. The lingering drunks from the night prior were the first to turn towards Senesio, hands over their ears as they hissed for quiet. A beggar boy spared him a quick glance as well, then spotted a scrap of food in the gutter and decided his interest was better spent there. And that was it for the crowd. Unless one counted the sleeping man half hidden in the shadows of the alley. Was he sleeping, or dead? Didn’t much matter. If he wasn’t dead, he soon would be, most like. Seemed if something in this place weren’t already dead or dying it was bent on making sure you were. The Murkwater, the locals called this swamp, after the dark, thick water that seemed to ooze more than flow from within the eternal darkness at its heart. The canopy above was so thick daylight rarely penetrated it, could barely filter down to illuminate the world below in anything more than some sad half-light. Just enough to paint everything the color of decay, like a rot eating at the edge of a festering wound.
“Who’s this then?” one of the drunks asked, stumbling a step forward and squinting up at Chen’s employer. A strange sight, no doubt, was Senesio Suleiman Zhao. A man from everywhere, as he often claimed. The first name of a far westerner, foreign and unique in this part of the world. Followed by his father’s name, a rather traditional one among the well-to-do of the desert kingdom of Mercer. And his third name last, from the clan of Zhao, all too recognizable here in the Zhong empire. Might be Senesio was a man from everywhere, but nowhere wanted to claim him. Or, at least that was the story his features told, all mixed and mingled and jumbled such that no one ethnicity properly stood out. Embarrassed, they were. Or ashamed. He’d the thin face and thick mustache of a westerner, the darkly tanned skin of a Mercaen. Long black hair, too, but pulled back tight and high in the Zhong style. Was quite a sight, that man. As long as one didn’t look too close beneath the surface.
“Good and noble people of Akeng,” Senesio started, drawing more calls for quiet from the gathering of hungover drunks. “You honor your ancestors with the warm welcome you have offered me. I had never hoped in all my days to happen upon a town as quaint and respectable as such I have found here.”
There was a fine line between stretching the truth and outright lying. As a scribe, Chen was all too familiar with the most effective means of toeing said line. Senesio, on the other hand, preferred to stomp on it. Violently and frequently.
“But forgive me, I’ve yet to introduce myself. Undoubtedly you know me by one of my many titles. In Mercer they honor me as the Tamer of Serpents. In Teshkai, as He of Great Thoughts. Even in the fierce wilds of the Ghenti steppe I have been named. Fear, they call me, for that is what my deeds have inspired in the hearts of those savages.” He swept the beaver-hat from his head and lowered his voice, adding a sprinkle of reverence. “But it is the title the honorable people of the Zhong empire have given me that I cherish the most.” He drew out the moment, baiting the curiosity of his audience. When he spoke again, it was in a whisper, just quiet enough to force any listening ears to lean in closer.
“Grand Protector of the People.” He smiled and for a moment his true self showed through, all teeth and ambition, grandiose promises and self-serving victories. Or maybe that was just the half-light playing tricks. Chen shook the thought from his head as Senesio continued his speech.
“It is a title I hold with great pride, bestowed upon me for my deeds in service of the citizens of the empire. ‘Twas I that put down the man-eating brush cat of Chobei. ‘Twas I that vanquished the shadow-stalker in the back alleys of Na Neng. And, fair citizens of Akeng, it will be I who slays the wendiguar that plagues you now.”
No mention of the rewards he’d earned for those hunts, of course. And certainly not of the one he stood to collect upon delivery of the wendiguar’s head. But if the people noticed, they showed no sign, were too distracted. His last words had caught their attention. Men who’d previously only been half-listening, more for entertainment than anything, most like, were backing away now, eyes wide. Wendiguar. Now there was a thing to be feared.
A creature of nightmare made flesh. No one had properly seen one and lived to tell the tale, but the rumors about it were as abundant as the slashed and torn corpses it left in its wake. Some said it walked on two legs, others on all four. Some said it hunted to eat, others for sport, ripping and tearing and mutilating its victims in some form of sick pleasure. Some even said it could mimic the voices it heard, used this to lure in unsuspecting victims. The stories of the beast were varied and numerous, each more chilling than the last, but it had been tormenting the towns bordering the swamp for too long and now the regional magistrate was paying a fine sum for its head. The hunt for it would make a mighty fine story and turn a mighty fine profit. Assuming they didn’t die in the process.
“Fear not, citizens!” Senesio shouted, but even as he spoke several doors creaked shut, and those few men still outside slipped away, disappearing into the shadows of the leaning buildings and rotted homes. In a matter of moments the already half-abandoned town appeared the rest of the way abandoned. Except for Senesio, of course, and his ever-faithful scribe.
“Huh.” Senesio jumped down from the crate, hat still in his hands. “Thought that would go better.”
“Something tells me we’re going to need more than your words and my quill to kill a wendiguar.”
“Oh, we’ll find the men we need. Fear has its claws in these people, but I’ve always been the persuasive sort.”
"Your money usually handles the persuading, if I recall.”
“All means to the same end, my friend.” Senesio set off down the street, eyes on the twinkling lights of the drink hall they’d passed on the way into town. “You’ll write of my rousing speech today.”
“Of how the people cheered and rejoiced at the sight of their savior.” He smirked. “Of how they loved my hat.”
“I don’t recall that being the case.”
“I don’t pay you to recall, my dear Chen. I pay you to record the wondrous adventures of Senesio Suleiman Zhao.”
“They loved your hat.”
“That they did.” He paused before the door of the drink hall, beaver-hat still clutched in his hands. “Damned ridiculous thing, though, isn’t it?” And with that he tossed it aside and pulled open the door, warmth and light and drunken singing oozing out from within.
* * *
A swamp as deep and dark as the pit of hell itself. Or so said the locals. A place where evil spirits roamed free and ghost-tribes of cannibals stalked the shadows. Fool’s stories, most like, Chen figured. The uneducated, unwashed masses of the countryside were easily frightened creatures and prone to exaggeration. Still, he had to admit, this was an ancestors-forsaken place if ever he’d seen one.
Trees with trunks twice as wide as a man rose all around them. Probably they would’ve been beautiful, awe-inspiring things if seen by the light of day. But this was the Murkwater, and here, nothing knew the light of day. Branches moaned from somewhere above, unseen but heard all too well as they swayed in some phantom wind. It was a sound to send a shiver down Chen’s neck, set his skin to tingling. Tingling, and sweating. Though the sweat was from exertion more than anything.
“Fool’s burden, this hunt,” he mumbled to himself, sinking into the soil again with another step. More mud than soil, really. Black and wet and sucking at every footstep. More than once he’d nearly lost a boot to its grip. And worse, it stank. A sickly-sweet smell, but heavy and tinged with musk. But wasn’t that how it always was? One unpleasant situation after the next, each another chapter in the adventures of Senesio Suleiman Zhao. Each another pamphlet he’d write, then publish, then disperse. All to build his employer’s reputation. If only it weren’t all lies. If only Senesio didn’t pay so well.
Seemed near everything in life could be chalked up to money. Changed men, it did. Made them greedy, made them fearless, made them do damned stupid things. Like slog through ankle deep mud in the endless dark of the Murkwater. Chen looked ahead to the men they’d recruited to accompany them on the hunt.
If he was being honest, men was a generous term. Thugs, would perhaps be more appropriate. And criminals, too, most likely. It was only a very foolish, or a very desperate man that signed on to hunt with Senesio Suleiman Zhao. Chen paused a moment to wonder which one he was. Both, most like.
Thugs or criminals, fools or desperate men, it didn’t much matter. There were twelve of them that had signed on for the hunt. Twelve men, but more importantly, twelve swords, five bows, a mess of arrows, and a much greater mess of knives. Chen had accompanied Senesio on near a dozen hunts now and so far no matter how foul the beast they’d faced it had fallen to the same recipe: a healthy dose of sharpened steel and well-aimed arrows. Didn’t much matter who was swinging the swords or loosing the arrows as long as they hit their mark. Though, looking at this lot, not even that was guaranteed.
“You’re sure about this?” Chen said, lowering his voice so only Senesio heard.
“If Senesio Suleiman Zhao is anything, my friend, it’s sure,” he said between squelching footsteps through the black mud.
“I’m just saying, this lot doesn’t look the most promising.”
Senesio lowered his own voice now.
“When has any of the help ever looked promising?”
He’d a point there.
“Right, but this isn’t just some brush cat or back alley murderer, this is…” Chen paused a moment, searching around him in the dark as if giving voice to the creature’s name would summon it. He swallowed hard. “This is a wendiguar.”
The creature’s name alone had sent the townsfolk of Akeng scurrying back into the shadows. More bluster than anything though those people probably were, on the lawless edge of the Zhong empire, showing weakness was an invitation to get robbed, or murdered. Likely, both. The townsfolk’s reaction proved the usual rules didn’t apply to the wendiguar. Weak or not, it seemed everyone turned tail when that beast was involved. Everyone except Senesio.
“My noble biographer, the ancestors are wise. There’s a reason they gave you a quill and me a sword.” He patted at the blade on his hip. Like the townsfolk of Akeng, Senesio was nine parts bluster. Unlike the townsfolk, however, the tenth part of him was all lethal skill. More than enough to make up for the other nine.
“Let it be known Senesio Suleiman Zhao runs from nothing, be it man, beast, or otherwise.” He paused. “That’s a good one. Make sure you write it down.”
Chen nodded, making a mental note of it.
“So what’s the plan, then? We stomp around out here until we find the beast?”
Senesio grinned, the torch in his hand casting a shadow across his face and warping it into a nihilistic smile.
“On the contrary, I’m quite sure it will find us.”
Chen swallowed hard. Somehow, he didn’t find that very comforting.
* * *
There was a commotion up front, a rapid squelching of mud as the line broke and men backed away.
Wendiguar! Chen thought, but found himself quickly corrected.
“See how funny you find it when you’re spitting teeth, bastard!” One of the men they’d hired, Jongke, threw a punch and caught a smaller man across the chin. He stumbled backwards a pace, but what he lacked in height he quickly made up for in ferocity, charging forward and slamming into Jongke.
They crashed into a tree trunk, then bounced off and collapsed into the mud, all flailing arms, shouted curses, and thudding blows.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” Senesio shouted running toward the commotion. The combatants paid him no mind.
“Gentlemen,” he said again, but this time he followed the word with a swift kick. It caught the smaller man in the ribs, rolled him over. Jongke made to take advantage of the interruption but was stopped as the blade of Senesio’s sword came to rest on his shoulder.
“Enough of that, I should think.”
The combatants growled and cursed, but didn’t resume the brawl. The smaller one spit to one side and wiped a spot of blood from his lips.
“On your feet.” Senesio sheathed his sword and waved them up. When they had risen he stood between them, throwing an arm around each of their shoulders. “Do you know why we’re here?”
“Come now, speak up. Why are we here in this ancestors-forsaken swamp?”
“To hunt the wendiguar,” Jongke said.
“A good guess, but no.” Senesio turned to the smaller man. “Why are we here?”
His only response was to scowl.
“The three W’s!” Senesio said, speaking to the group now and waving his arms in the air as if it had been the obvious answer. Chen sighed. Here we go. Senesio gave the speech at least once with every group, sometimes more.
“You can’t tell me you haven’t heard of the three W’s. No one? You poor souls.” Senesio shook his head. “The three W’s are the cornerstones of every man’s ambition in life, are they not, Chen?”
“Indeed, they are.”
“The great wars of our time, the rise of empires, any number of countless other feats, all have been accomplished in pursuit of the three W’s.” Senesio smiled. “I’m talking of wine, women, and wealth, of course!”
A few men muttered their agreement, though the sound was quickly lost in the suffocating darkness. It was unable to hold back Senesio’s booming voice, however.
“Some may say we are merely here to kill the wendiguar. To collect a reward, but that is only the beginning of our grand design.” He was walking around now, patting men on the shoulder as he passed. “It is my experience that once you have wealth, you also have the wine and the women.”
The men were smiling and grinning now, nodding their heads at Senesio’s words. Fools, the lot of them. They’d signed on with Senesio Suleiman Zhao and that had been their first mistake, but now they were listening to him, an even deadlier decision.
“The three W’s are fine, fine things. But, and here’s the secret boys,” he lowered his voice, forced the men to lean in close to hear. “They all add up to something more. To something greater. When you have the three W’s, you also have prestige.” He spoke the last word like he was offering them some forbidden treasure, some great prize stolen by the dark of night. He spoke of it as if it was something these uneducated thugs could attain. Chen had to stop himself from laughing. Always did at this part. Senesio had a way with words, to be sure. He shaped the hopes and dreams of men like a potter did clay. And like clay after it was fired, what Senesio promised was prone to shatter. But it wasn’t Chen’s place to point that out. Let the thugs think what they would.
“So what do you say, gentlemen?” Senesio turned to face the two who had exchanged blows. “Shall we fight amongst ourselves like mindless beasts, or shall we work together, complete this hunt, and drown ourselves in wine, women, and wealth?”
It was an easy decision for Jongke.
“Wine, women, and wealth sounds a mighty fine thing.”
Senesio turned to the shorter man.
“And you, my friend?”
“Hard to say no to that.”
“Wonderful!” Senesio clapped his hands together. “I assure you, you will not regret—”
“Just make sure this bottom feeder keeps his mouth shut.” The shorter man pushed Jongke to one side. His foot caught on something in the dark and he stumbled, arms waving wildly, then tumbled through a patch of brush. The bushes swayed closed after his passing, leaving only darkness and silence.
“Uncalled for, but point taken…” Senesio waved his hand, signaling for the man’s name.
“Right, then. Control your temper, Wei, lest I find I am no longer in need of your services.” He leaned in close, mustache brushing up against the man’s ear. His words were quiet, barely audible, but they left no room for misunderstanding. “I’ve killed better men than you for far less.” And with that he gave Wei a friendly pat on the cheek and turned towards where Jongke had disappeared.
“Are you all right, my friend?”
“Help me!” a shout echoed through the darkness, but quieter than it should have been, as if from far away. “Ancestors above, help me!”
From where he was standing Chen saw Senesio scrunch up his eyebrows.
“Torch,” he said, holding out one hand. One of the men handed his over and Senesio leaned into the brush, leading with the flame. The flickering light illuminated the ground for several paces, two smushed footprints planted in the mud, but beyond that there was only darkness. Senesio leaned the torch in closer. More darkness. But no, it was empty air, Chen realized as a steep slope became apparent. The ground fell away steeply, down and out of sight.
Something splashed faintly, but it didn’t sound right, was off somehow. And then Chen caught a whiff of something on the wind. Something sweet, like the smell of spun sugar, but thicker, somehow. So heavy as to be overwhelming.
“Help!” came Jongke’s distant cry again.
Senesio tossed the torch down the slope. It landed with a wet squelch, the burning end resting just above the surface of a puddle of water. Except, it wasn’t water. It was too thick, too heavy. It was the source of the overwhelming sweet smell, Chen realized, plugging his nose.
“Well, shit.” Senesio grimaced as Jongke was illuminated.
He lay struggling at the bottom of what looked to be some sort of sinkhole. Vegetation covered the sides in great flaps of leafy green so thick as to almost be flesh-like. But that wasn’t the issue. The not-water that filled the bottom of the pit seemed to pull at Jongke, sucking him deeper and deeper. The more he struggled the more he was caught in it. The lower half of his body was already pulled in so deep his frantic kicking failed to breach the surface, the shadows of his legs working slow and sluggish. His arms were still somewhat free and his fingers clawed and tore at the wall of the sinkhole to no avail.
“Rope!” he shouted. “Someone throw me a rope!” And then he slipped, face slamming down into the not-water. His cries turned to a desperate gurgling. The muscles in his neck flexed, tendons standing out on his skin. The not-water seemed to stretch and for a moment his face was visible through a layer of the muck, until it snapped back down and he was under the surface once more.
“Ancestors above,” someone said from behind. “It’s moving!”
The vegetation on the wall of the sinkhole rustled, then broke free, two massive flaps peeling away slowly and folding down towards the center. It’s alive, Chen realized. This wasn’t just a sinkhole, it was a massive plant within a sinkhole. And even as he looked further into the not-water, the skeletons of several animals became apparent, skin and meat and organs all dissolved away. No, not dissolved, digested.
“It’s a swallowing plant!” Chen shouted as the realization struck him.
Jongke’s arms were still waving frantically, his muffled cries gurgling up at them, but no one moved to help. A few offered quick prayers to the ancestors, but no more.
Chen looked to the rope hanging from the pack of the man next to him. He half reached for it before stopping himself. The poor bastard below them was lost. Any attempt at a rescue would more than likely end with more of them falling to a slow, suffocating death. So instead he did nothing. Just stood there and watched as a third leafy flap joined the others in slowly smothering the gruesome sight.
When the flaps were finally closed the group stood in silence for a long moment. Chen had seen more than a few men die on their previous hunts. Some deaths were better than others, it was true. But this…this was about as bad as it got, best he could figure. Might’ve been Jongke was a thug and a lowlife, might’ve been he was just another of the unwashed masses, but that didn’t mean he had deserved to go like that. Chen wouldn’t have wished that death on his worst enemies. Well, maybe them, but certainly no one else.
“This means we get his cut of the reward, right?” Wei said, breaking the silence.
Senesio turned from the sinkhole and Chen felt himself flinch at the fire in his employer’s eyes. Fierce as the flames of hell, for a moment, and then gone as he took a deep breath. Gone, maybe, but not forgotten. Senesio was not a man to forget, and even less of one to forgive.
“The contract you all signed dictates how that money will be dispersed. Chen, remind me what Jongke requested?”
Chen wracked his brain a moment. The contract was in his pack along with the rest of his writing materials, but he didn’t need it, took pride in his memory of these things. And ah, there was the answer.
“His family. A wife, two kids.”
“So it shall be. His share will be given to his wife and children upon our successful return.”
A generous proposal, even if it was all bluster. Senesio was not a generous man. Could the gruesome nature of Jongke’s death have softened him? For a moment, Chen half thought so, but he knew better. Senesio would not part with money he didn’t have to. Jongke’s family would never see a coin of it.
“Onwards, gentlemen,” Senesio said, nodding further into the swamp. “We’ve a wendiguar to kill.”
With that the men continued on, forming a line once more after a brief argument about who was to lead. Might be these men had lived in Akeng all their lives, but few of them had been this deep in the Murkwater. Even fewer were willing to be the one who led them deeper yet.
Senesio fell in line beside Chen.
“We did everything we could to save Jongke. Several rescue efforts were mounted, but all failed. Even then, we only stopped when our noble companion begged us to leave him, too afraid one of us would slip in as well. His death was tragic, but he died noble, still concerned for his comrades above all else.”
“He died screaming.”
“That’s not how the story will tell it.”
It wasn’t a suggestion.
* * *
They’d been traveling for days, it seemed, though it was impossible to find any hint of the sky in the canopy above. They were in too deep for that now. Far too deep. When they’d first started out Chen had swatted away every spider web, squished every insect he’d found on him. Now he found he didn’t much care. Not that there was a point in it anyway. For every bug he killed it seemed two or three more took its place. His skin already itched from bites and stings in what seemed a thousand different places. Didn’t see how it could get much worse.
They’d left Akeng with a mind to hunt and kill the wendiguar. Instead they’d walked and walked for what seemed an eternity, hacking and slashing through thick brush, slipping and falling through ground so soft as to be mush, and all for what? For foot rot and rashes? For sweat-soaked clothes and a soggy bed in the mud each night? Might’ve been Chen was a talented storyteller, but he was certain it was going to take every trick of his quill to spin this into anything other than a nightmare march into hell itself.
No wendiguar yet, either. Not even the slightest sign of the beast. Seemed a foolish thing to wish for, to find that nightmare out here in the dark. But when Senesio set his mind to a thing, that thing got done. Say whatever you wanted about him, he was determined.
They’d decided to make camp on the driest spot of land they could find, everyone trying to pretend they didn’t notice how close it was to another giant sinkhole. Easy enough not to look at the thing, but there wasn’t much to be done about the smell. The overwhelming sweet stench of the not-water that the swallowing plants used to lure in their prey had been near unbearable. But the camp was dry, and that was something. They had a fire going, and wouldn’t be sleeping in the mud. Not this night, at least.
The noise of the men setting up camp dwindled behind him as Chen moved through the brush, fussing at the lacing of his pants. He would’ve thought by now he’d be used to the dark, would be able to handle himself better. Instead he barely got his pants unlaced in time, then let out a deep sigh as he relieved himself into the mud. He’d picked up some sort of sickness. Probably from the water. They’d run out days ago, had been filling their waterskins from the swamp since. Whatever it was, his bladder and it did not play well. Seemed he had to piss every hundred steps.
He closed his eyes and breathed deep, relaxing as best he could. It was almost peaceful here. Except for the pitter patter of piss splattering to the mud. And the gnats buzzing in his ears. And the sweat rolling down his forehead. And Senesio calling for him.
Chen opened his eyes but found a darkness only slightly less deep than that inside his eyelids.
“Why are we here in this ancestors-forsaken swamp?” Senesio’s voice again, off to the right. Chen looked back to camp. The fire flickered and wavered, casting dancing shadows across the men preparing the tents, but Senesio was not among them. Chen laced his pants up and turned back towards the darkness. What was his employer doing out there?
“Senesio?” Chen said, taking a tentative step forward. “Where are you?”
“Are you all right, my friend?” It was definitely his voice. There was no mistaking it. Chen paused. Of course he was all right. But that wasn’t the issue. It wasn’t like Senesio to inquire after his condition. Hadn’t done it once in the years they’d been together.
“Where are you?” Chen said again, hand going to the dagger on his belt. He’d never used the thing before, but still, it felt better to have it there should he ever have need of it.
There was a rustling off to the right and Chen turned towards it, moving forward slowly.
“We did everything we could to save him.” Chen stopped hard, his front foot slipping in the mud, almost sending him to the ground. Something was wrong. The hair on the back of his neck was standing on end. His heart pounded in his ears, each beat seeming the deafening boom of a war drum as he suddenly realized just how far he was from camp.
“Why are we here in this ancestors-forsaken swamp?”
Chen drew his dagger from its sheath, felt the clumsiness of it in his grip. But still, Senesio talked on.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen. Enough of that, I should think.” A pause, and then. “The three W’s!”
A hand clamped down on Chen’s shoulder and his heart near burst from his chest as he let out an embarrassing squeak, somewhere between a scream and a yelp.
“Shhhh,” Senesio’s mustache rubbed against his cheek as the hand on his shoulder guided him slowly backwards. “So it can mimic voices.”
“W-what?” Chen stammered, voice turned to mush in his mouth, thoughts all swirling and spinning in a terrified frenzy.
“It’s here,” Senesio said, still guiding them back towards camp.
The bushes rustled again. And then Senesio’s voice, exactly as he’d just spoken, came from the darkness ahead.
“It’s here.” And again. “It’s here. It’s here.”
Chen could control himself no longer, turned and ran toward camp, the dagger slipping from his hand. The brush tore against him as he darted through it, slipping and turning with every step as his boots fought for purchase in the mud.
Senesio was right behind, laughing as they ran, mad bastard that he was.
The creature’s mimicked words followed them, seeming just a step behind.
“It’s here. It’s here. It’s here.”
Chen burst from the trees into camp, and then he was on his face, sliding to a stop. Senesio bounded over the log that had tripped Chen and slid gracefully to a stop. The men turned to look at them, confused expressions painted across their faces.
Senesio paused a moment to fish a leaf from his mustache, then drew his sword and faced the men.
“We’ve a guest,” he said with a laugh, excitement in his eyes. The flickering light of the campfire cast his shadow back and out into the brush where it danced a mad jig, heaving back and forth. All the while, the wendiguar’s stolen words echoed around them.
“It’s here. It’s here. It’s here.”
* * *
A scream, then the thrumming of bow strings as half a dozen arrows were loosed at the beast. They found only empty air, however, the wendiguar far too fast. Silence then, but for a thud as the man it had struck collapsed, a pool of blood spreading from his torn-out throat. Another down, then. Chen huddled close with the rest of the men, the group pressed as near the campfire as possible without standing in it.
Three of them had been killed already, there one moment, then mortally wounded the next. The wendiguar struck with incredible speed, hardly more than a blur as its slashing claws made mincemeat of its victim’s faces and necks.
Chen gripped a dead man’s sword in one hand, the blade threatening to slip from his grasp with each nervous twitch of his arm. He was painfully aware of his other hand, empty and useless. A poor thing, to drop his dagger earlier. He cursed himself for his wild panic, but he was a scribe, damnit. Not a soldier. He wasn’t here to fight, just observe. Though if he didn’t fight now, he’d the distinct concern the only thing he’d be observing was the wendiguar slashing his neck to a bloody pulp. A whip of flame bit into his calf as he stepped too close to the fire and he gasped, hopping forward and slamming into the back of one of the men.
“Behind us!” Someone yelled and the group seemed to turn as one, Chen caught in the movement and forced along with them.
“Behind us!” came the same man’s voice again, but this time from out in the brush. It almost seemed to be mocking them, stealing their words only to repeat them back while it stalked in the darkness beyond their fire.
“Forgive me for saying so,” Senesio spoke, sword in hand and smiling only slightly less at the sight of the dead men, “but I rather think it’s enjoying itself.”
Before he’d even stopped talking the wendiguar broke from the bushes again, came at them from the left. It slashed at Wei but he reacted early, ducked behind his shield. Still the claws came, bursting through the wood then ripping a great chunk of it away in a spray of splinters. Bows thrummed as the beast darted for the bushes again, the arrows missing by a wide margin.
“Lead your aim,” Senesio snarled, then snatched a bow from the nearest archer. “Like so.” He nocked an arrow to the string and half drew it back, breathing deep and even as he scanned the darkness.
Nothing, for a long moment. And then, more nothing. Not even stolen words taunted them from beyond the light of the fire.
“You think it’s gone?” Wei asked.
We should only be so lucky, Chen thought.
“We can find out,” Senesio said, then turned to the man in front of him. “Your family will be well compensated.”
“Huh?” the man grunted, but Senesio’s boot caught him in the rear, sent him stumbling away from the group. He had just inhaled to scream before a vaguely human-shaped blur tore into him, a spray of blood shooting into the air as it passed.
Senesio’s bow thrummed. The wendiguar was a good two paces from the cover of the brush when it stumbled, then fell, rolling and sliding to a stop in the mud. It let out a piercing scream that started like a woman in pain but quickly faded to nothing but a head-splitting ringing as blood burst from Chen’s ears. Several men dropped their weapons, clapping their hands over their ears, and stumbled backwards. One kicked the fire on his way past, scattering a shower of coals to sizzle and hiss in the mud.
“And here we have the beast in the flesh.” Chen just managed to hear Senesio’s voice through the ringing. “Foul little devil, aren’t you?”
Though little seemed far from an apt description. The wendiguar screamed again as Chen turned his eyes towards it, getting his first good look at the monster.
Human in shape and size, for the most part, though its limbs were skinny and elongated. Almost as if they’d been stretched on the rack. Didn’t seem right such inhuman strength could come from them. The skin was a foul brown, dark and rough like the bark of a dying tree. The face was the worst, however. Shriveled and creased like old leather, it seemed all skin but for two tiny eyes of deep black. And the mouth. Ancestors above, the mouth. Didn’t seem much at first, until the lips rolled back to reveal two rows of curved incisors. The wendiguar rose to its feet with a snarl and its hands hung far past its knees, claws like curved knives almost touching the ground.
In a smooth, almost human-like motion it grabbed the arrow in its leg and snapped the shaft. From beside him Chen heard Senesio swallow hard. He tossed his bow back to its owner, then pointed at him.
“Personally, I blame that man.”
“W-what?” the accused stammered, but the wendiguar was already charging.
Wei stepped in towards the beast, leading with his shield. It swatted him away in one smooth motion, splintered the remains of his shield and lifted him into the air to fall with a thud several steps away.
Another piercing scream broke from the creature’s mouth and then it was among them, hacking and slashing. The man Senesio had pointed to was the first to go, a claw slashing down at him. The bow, then the man’s chest, split in two. Something hot slapped into Chen’s eyes and he stumbled backwards, blinded. The screams of the men blended with the screams of the wendiguar, then Chen found himself screaming as well, wiping ancestors-knew-who’s blood from his eyes.
The fight didn’t last long. Wasn’t much of a fight at all, really. By the time Chen could see, it was over. At that point, he almost wished he was blind again, such was the carnage before him.
They’d picked a dry spot to camp initially, but now it was as muddy as the rest of the swamp. Only difference was, it wasn’t water that had turned the soil to mud. The bodies of the men lay in steaming piles, the soft pink flesh of their insides spilled for all the world to see. The wendiguar stood above what remained of the men, chunks of flesh caught in its claws, in its teeth. It turned to Chen and another embarrassing squeak slipped from his throat.
This was it, then. He felt a warmth spread out through his pants as he stared at his own death in the flesh. And then he thought of Senesio. Not his own life, not the mistakes he’d made that had led to this point, not the wrongs he’d committed, not the people that would wonder what happened to him. A poor way to spend his last living moments, thinking of the ambitions of his employer. Ambitions that would fall short. Prestige that would never be obtained. All the time, all those hunts, all those stories would be for naught. A damned shame, that was.
The wendiguar moved towards him and Chen sighed, didn’t even bother to reach for the sword he’d dropped in the mud a pace away. What was the point? The wendiguar had just felled near a dozen men in a matter of moments. Unless his talent for writing was going to kill this beast, which it most assuredly was not, he knew he’d no chance.
But Senesio did. His sword came down from behind the wendiguar, split its head almost to the mouth. The creature flailed once, reaching back for its assailant, but Senesio wasted no time, running a dagger through its throat.
The creature went stiff with a jerk, then slid to its knees, hands slapping down into the dirt.
“It’s here,” the wendiguar said in a raspy mockery of Senesio’s voice. Its mouth worked opened and closed like a fish out of water. “It’s here, it’s here, it’s—”
Senesio ripped the dagger from its throat and the creature fell silent.
“Quite enough of that, thank you.”
He nudged it with his knee and the wendiguar collapsed onto its face, blood running from its wounds into the already saturated mud.
“T-t-thank you,” Chen managed to stammer, shaking all over.
“Why, I couldn’t possibly do without you, dear Chen.” Senesio smiled, wiping the blood from his blade. “Who would write of my adventures then?”
“Ancestors above,” a voice came from the side. It was Wei, Chen realized, turning to face the man. He was limping, one hand clasped to his side, a trickle of blood flowing through his fingers. His eyes were wide as he took in the carnage.
“Wei, my good man!” Senesio practically skipped over to him, then wrapped an arm around his shoulder. The man visibly winced.
“I’m so glad you made it through. I’d wanted to speak with you.”
Wei opened his mouth to respond, but Senesio spoke over him as he pulled him along, walking him towards the edge of camp.
“You remember that business from before, our discussion about paying the families of our fallen comrades?”
“Right, about that,” Wei spoke quickly, struggling to be heard. “I’m sorry if I gave you any offense. It was not meant, sir.”
“Oh, no offense, none at all, my friend.” Senesio clapped him on the back and Wei winced again. “In fact, I loved your idea. Positively loved it!”
“Couldn’t say it in front of the men, of course, but dividing the spoils among the survivors? Well, we’ve done it before, so why not this time as well?” Senesio had walked Wei to the far edge of camp now, almost out of earshot.
“W-what are we doing here, sir?”
“Why, dividing the spoils, of course.” And that was when Chen saw it. They were standing at the edge of the sinkhole. Despite the stink of death, the sickly-sweet smell of the swallowing plant reached his nostrils. Seemed Wei realized it about the same time. His already wide eyes went wider, but it was too late. When Senesio set his mind to a thing, that thing got done. Say whatever you wanted about him, he was determined.
A little shove was all it took. A little shove, and a loud scream as Wei tumbled out of sight. The faintest of splashes reached Chen’s ears a moment later, but was quickly drowned out by Wei’s screams for mercy. A pity Senesio had none in him.
He walked back over to Chen, whistling a happy tune.
“Quite the mess we’ve made here today, I’m afraid.” He paused a moment. “Though, I’m sure it shall make for a most thrilling story, don’t you think?”
There was a long moment of silence as Chen got a hold of himself, took several steadying breaths to stop his body from shaking, stop his heart from banging against his chest. Why did he keep doing this? Why did he keep following this heartless madman? But he already knew the answer, had known it all along. Money changed men. Made them greedy, made them fearless, made them do damned stupid things. Like follow Senesio Suleiman Zhao across the continent, lying to the world about his adventures. After all, it was that, or starve. And when one considered it that way, was it even a choice at all?
Chen took one last deep breath, then rose to his feet. He forced a smile on to his face, forced himself to face his employer.
“It shall be a most thrilling story, indeed.”
If you really enjoyed this story, feel free to make my day by downloading it for $0.99 on Amazon. As well, it appears alongside three other stories in my Kindle / paperback anthology, Nine Parts Bluster and Other Stories.