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Despite the devastation wrought after 196 years of battling trolls – killing two-thirds of the Commonwealth – the united army of Liraehne cleared the lands. The great Fanaal Emperor Tian’Tal pushed the trolls to the edge of the Frontier, making a stand at the outpost of Tarn, but it was the leadership of Queen Kalynn Wytestarr who led the final victory within the Crax. Of those who went to war, many would never return home, some not because death claimed them but because their wounds made travel impossible, and the outpost swelled into a city.

As Tarn grew, with farmers and families restoring a sense of normal after so much loss, the great heroes and leaders began to pass into legend and new powers began to arise to fill the voids left behind. 

This is the story of one of them.

Author Chuck Sperati Writing Distracted Logo
Onvical
Tualla
Finney
Kantin

Part Five: Hero of Tarn

“She’s coming!” a broken voice cried. The figure that stumbled through the door of the butcher shop wore only a pair of tattered, muddy pants with a long tear that started just above the knee. The pale, thin form appeared almost skeletal, with long bloody scratches crisscrossing flesh pulled tight over ribs and shoulders.

Dropping his cleaver, Delwin Vani rushed around the counter and called towards the back room. “Ma!”

Slumping into strong hands that left crimson streaks on pale flesh, the newcomer mumbled incoherently, eyes rolling around in his head.

“Flamin-flesh,” Delwin muttered. Doing his best to support the emaciated form, he worried about breaking him. Looking into sunken eyes and over sallow cheeks, the young butcher saw familiarity in the features but couldn’t place him. “Ma! There’s someone out here and he don’t look good.”

“Well, send ’em over to Neris. We don’t tend to the sick here.” Iola Vani stepped out of the back room that served as her office, rubbing ar her temples. The Rains lasted longer than usual again this year, leaving fields too wet to plant and her to deal with the prospect of food shortages at the start of her sixth Crana season as Mayor-Select. Preparations made during the last Harvest should have prevented the need for rationing, but an unexplained rot had affected two full silos. “We might have to rely on cattle to get us through. Have you been over to—is that a corpse?”

“Nuh-uh,” Delwin replied, staring into the face. “You know, I think it might be old Finney’s ward.”

“The orphan boy. What’s his name? Onvical.”

“I ain’t seen him since he burned Jodo, Rowen, and Faelan over at the stables, but I think it might be. That was six years ago, though. And this fella don’t look like he’s eaten since then.”

“Alright, let’s get him over to—”

“No!” Onvical interrupted, turning to face her. His eyes were sunk so far back in the sockets that the eyeballs looked to be floating in darkness. “She’s coming. Tualla’s coming.”

“The witch?” Iola asked.

“What witch?” her son replied.

“She’s been killing your mercenaries,” Onvical stated, his voice quivering, the sound of it drew their eyes to him, “and raising them as her servants.”

“What does he mean, Ma?”

“Shush, boy. Put him down and go fetch Kantin!”

“But—”

“Go. Now!”

*              *              *

Standing over a pair of corpses, holding a cloth over his nose and mouth, Kantin turned at the sound of approaching footsteps. Picking their way through the muddied field, Iola and Delwin Vani skittered along a puddle, supporting a gaunt figure between them.

“Mayor, I’d stay back if I were you.”

“I’m a butcher by trade,” she stated, her tone a mix of concern and irritation.

“But this isn’t—” he glanced back at the corpses, pushing the cloth back against his face, “—natural.”

Leaving her son to support the other, Iola strode up to the one-armed Sheriff. When she looked down, the color drained from her face. “Is-is this is how they came out of the forest?”

“Yes—watch it!” Tucking the cloth into the open bevor at his neck, he nudged Iola back and drew his arming sword.

“What are—” she started, stepping back onto a bare patch of muddied ground. When her back foot slipped, she pitched forward and hit the ground. Pain radiated up her forearm from catching herself on the wet grass.

Movement drew her attention.

Picking her head up, the Mayor-Select’s eyes went wide, and a scream fell out of her open mouth as the corpse clambered at her. Bits of graying flesh and hair clung to the skull in places, but her gaze went to the skeletal arm, reaching from a faded blue pauldron. Somewhere beneath her terror, she recognized that pauldron.

Dropping to one knee, Kantin plunged his blade down through the skull and into the mud with a wet squelch.

The tight flesh that remained around the fingers stretched as they reached for Iola.

“My apologies,” he said, using the partially buried weapon to push himself back up to his feet. “They keep doing that, no matter how much damage we do.” Leaving the sword in the ground, he stepped down on the skeletal arm. Wincing at the sound—like snapping a tree branch—she took the offered hand and pulled herself up. “I sent Nami back to Kasilla’s to get a bucket of oil so we can burn them,” he continued, nodding left. “There are three others like this in his south field already burning.”

Rubbing at her forearm, Iola felt her son’s strong hand grasp her elbow. The comfort that hand offered helped to push away the fear tugging at her mind. Pulling slow breaths into her lungs to slow the fluttering in her chest, her gaze shifted between the carcasses. “They’re mercenaries,” she muttered while her Sheriff retrieved his sword.

“Ma, are you—”

Shaking her head, Iola motioned her son back. “Maybe,” she croaked, between breaths, and started again. “Maybe we should go talk to Finney.”

“He’s dead,” Onvical stated, standing near the big puddle where Delwin had left him. The borrowed clothes were far too big. His pants were cinched with a leather belt her son hadn’t been able to wear for almost a decade, yet his presence seemed to fill that field. Pushing back the hood of the cloak, he continued. “A few days after the End of Harvest Festival, I found him. There was a poisonous spider in his bed, and Tualla was in his room.”

“What happened to him?” Kantin whispered, pointing at the orphan boy.

“The witch,” she offered, glancing back. “She’s been torturing him. We need to gather everyone who can fight. Over the past six years, we’ve sent twenty or thirty mercenaries after her.”

“Closer to forty. But others have disappeared,” he added, his gaze lingering on the gaunt figure. “She could have an army of these things out there for all we know.”

“Wh-what are we going to do, Ma?”

Looking up at her son and then over at Kantin, Iola felt her mouth go dry. Finney advised me to leave her alone, and Kantin suggested we wait to see what she did, but I couldn’t leave it alone.

A skeletal arm covered in bits of gray flesh made a sudden grab for Kantin’s leg. Stepping back, he stomped down on it. The sound of the bones splintering caused mother and son to jump.

“We go after her,” Onvical stated from behind.

Turning to look at the malnourished figure swallowed in baggy clothing, the three of them stole quick glances at one another. “Look at what she’s done to those who have gone after her,” Kantin stated, pointing his sword at the broken corpses. “You say she’s killed Finney. How do we fight her without a Gaeldur?”

Clapping his hands together, one corner of his mouth turning up in a grin, Onvical’s arm’s blurred and then began to crackle with lightning. “Who says you don’t have one.”

*              *              *

Standing in front of Finney’s cottage, oversized shirt torn and blackened along his right side, with all the hair burned away on that side of his head, Onvical did not try to hide his joy.

“It worked,” he stated through a lopsided grin.

Leading a ragtag band of hunters, visiting travelers, and crippled soldiers into the old glen had been easier than expected. A handful of dead mercenaries wandering into town had stoked enough fear that it didn’t matter that they encountered so few of them when they arrived. No one questioned how he knew she would be in the caves instead of the hut, along with the corpses she concealed. They’d just dutifully dumped the oil in and set it all ablaze.

Touching the side of his head, he winced.

The sight of Tualla rising out of the cave like a flaming demon, tossing powerful magics as the flesh burned off her bones, had sent many fleeing for their lives. His own hesitation provided her an unwarranted opportunity and him with an unwanted lesson. It hurt, but that pain would pass, unlike the stories about the hero who destroyed the witch in defense of the town that would no doubt persist for decades.

It had been years since he’d wandered off into the woods by himself, dejected and desperate. By chance, he’d met the witch and traded one master for another. And now only he remained.

The grin he wore broke into laughter.

Stepping forward, he pushed the door of his cottage open and walked inside. Glancing into his study, he saw his chest sitting in the middle of the floor, right behind his reanimated Rylin servant.

*              *              *

Back in the glen, a place far more ancient with a darker history than anyone would suspect, the remains of Tualla’s hut continued to smolder. Buried beneath the surface of the adjacent algae-filled pond, within a sealed box of carved ivory, and wrapped in black silk, sat a golden leaf dusted with jade between engraved veins. A symbol of love and protection—a gift from mother to daughter—it had traveled all of Liraehne with Tualla, never leaving her possession.

It had become a piece of her.

Now it housed her lifeforce while she gathered her strength, waiting for the opportunity for vengeance.

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