Dead of Winter

Snow clung to Led’s fur lined collar, speckling the deep brown with pure white. The links in his chainmail coat hung stiffly, frozen mud interlocking the rings into a semi-solid sheet. Even his helmet had turned against him, having grown so cold that should he touch it with bare skin it would rip away flesh. A bloody spot on his crooked nose was testament to that fact.

Grumbling, the sellsword worked his way through yet another dead bog, his ears straining for the sound of breaking ice. Reeds and cattails shattered like glass as he brushed them aside, and once gloopy ground crunched under his hobnailed boots. The sky was a frigid blue, the crisp light of the sun doing little to warm the wilds of Anwex.

Despite the harsh conditions, Ledram was grateful for the frost. As bad as his journey was, it would have been near impossible to traverse the mud come the thaw. And, more importantly, his quarry would no doubt be hibernating. The kill would be quick, and come spring there would be one lest nuisance pestering the local loggers.

All he had to do was find the damned thing, no small feat considering the plant-like nature of his prey. The parasitic vines that infested the island would wrap themselves around whatever they could find, be it stone, timber, or bone, warping the material into a crude construct. The newly formed monstrosity then stalked the woods and wetlands, using its natural camouflage to subdue and consume whatever it crossed.

For all Led knew, he could have been standing on the beast. His employer had been less than helpful with information, and the local peasantry simply stated the thing lurked “over yonder”. With little to go off of, Led searched for anything out of the ordinary. A pile of bones, some hollow in the Frozen riverbank, anything.

Ledram slumped, letting loose a foggy sigh. He needed a break; the cold wrought havoc on the mercenaries aging bones, and his old wounds began to act up. Worst of all was his left eye, the empty socket aching miserably. He had to get out of the cold, at least for a moment.

The sellsword shimmied off his weighty pack, placing it upon a flat stone by the riverbank. From it he produced a mechanical fire-starter, a trinket he had purchased in far off Telucia, and a bottle of oil. He set the two upon the stone, before unpacking a rusty hatchet. Thusly armed, he began his search for firewood.

Finding suitably dry wood in the frozen swamp proved a far harder task than Led had anticipated. Most of the trees were rotten to the core, breaking into powder as the sellsword pried off branches. Gnarled roots proved impossible to rip out of the cloying frost, and Led’s dull axe simply bounced off the frozen timber.

As the sellsword tugged at a frozen chunk of bark, he felt a cracking from below the ice. Believing he had loosened the prized piece of timber, Led redoubled his efforts, shaking the bark like a man possessed. Finally, the chunk came free, sending the mercenary tumbling back.

A crash reverberated through the swamp as the ground churned, bits of stone and dirt flung in every direction. Led abandoned his prize and scrambled away from the writhing mess, dragging himself to his feet and abandoning his axe.

Before him a shape rose from the muck, wildly turning itself inside out. Sickly green tendrils flailed madly as the ball began to rise, taking on a more defined shape.

Ledram cursed his luck. He had stumbled upon the damned beast by mistake. He had intended to burn the thing as it slumbered, but all hopes of that were dashed as the monstrosity lumbered towards him.

The writhing mass uncoiled itself, slithering from its den. Wicked spines ran down the beast’s serpentine back, made from jaw and shinbones. Jagged slate jutted forth from rotted wood like vicious claws, honed on one another till they cut like razors.

Crowning the horror’s snake-like body was the half-rotted head of a stag, its once majestic horns sharpened into a devilish mockery. Milky eyes glared forward, articulated by the vines that wormed their way through the skull. A skinless jaw hung limply below the head, revealing a cavernous gullet of twisted roots and subsumed matter.

The beast rose to its full height, propping itself up with its forelimbs. From its grotesque head to its spine-laden tail, the thing neared twenty feet in length. Its motions were rough, stuttering, as rime-locked joints and frigid vines recovered from a frosty slumber.

Not wasting any time, Ledram wheeled about and bolted for his makeshift camp. Steel would do naught but anger the beast, for each vine severed would simply grow anew. What the sellsword needed was fire; even damp the vines burned violently, their insides coated with a vile, waxy oil. One good spark would set the thing alight.

Ledram sprinted madly through the swamp, the rumble of the great horror driving him on. Behind him the beast half slithered, half crawled, it’s great arms kicking up clouds of frozen mud and dead flora. No howl escaped its breathless maw, only the creaking of strained timber.

In moments Ledram had crossed the icy swamp, manically scrabbling for his pack. With one rapid motion he grabbed and uncorked the oil bottle, a sickly smell emanating from it. Throwing the cork aside, he grabbed the mechanical lighter, and held it over the bottle. Steel ground across flint as he tried the light the vile liquid, the ponderous thud of the monster growing near.

With a flash the bottle caught alight, a tongue of flame surging forth. The sellsword turned and flung the now alight vial, droplets of burning oil catching the arm of his padded jacket alight. Like a shooting star the projectile sailed towards the slithering beasts, crackling, until it shattered upon its jagged horns.

In a flash the thing went up like a candle, volatile vines sending veins of fire through it. Rapidly the horror began to disintegrate, falling to pieces as it slammed into the frozen dirt. Roots churned beneath the dirtied skin of the monster, before bursting free in a fiery display. The protrusions then twisted up, before turning to ash.

Led did not take time to savour his victory, as he was preoccupied with the inferno that had consumed his arm. The horsehair that padded his jacket burned at an alarming speed, sending tendrils of foul smoke skyward.

Quickly, Led buried his arm in the frozen soil, piling fresh snow over the blaze. With a hiss the flame was extinguished.

Pulling his arm free, the sellsword was greeted with blistered flesh. The burn ran to his elbow, scorching the skin. Fortunately his hand was spared the same fate, the thick gloves failing to catch alight. Such minor miracles had little impact on Led, however, as the pain was enough to make his small victories worthless.

Producing a bandage from his pouch, Led basked in the dying fire that had consume his foe. He mentally tallied his expenses as he bound his arm. Between the cost of a healer, a new sleeve for his jacket, and the oil, he had made a painful dent in his profits. He had enough to hole up in an inn for two, maybe three months, at least until the winter had passed.

After that, it was back on the road, after yet more monstrous game.

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