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CHAPTER FIVE

Quin had already stained his blade, killing eight gnolls he'd encountered in the abandoned streets. The rest he had allowed to escape, his menacing aura more than just an affectation of style. The shadows that surged through his spirit had an effect on those he encountered, and most were glad to be well away from it. These two approaching gnolls, fur wet from the rain, carrying weapons in hands that must have been chilled to ice in the unseasonable cold, began to sense the darkness that pervaded this lone warrior. Quinsareth could see the indecision in their hyena faces. They looked at one another, then at him. He allowed the tip of Bedlam's long, curved blade to scrape against the cobbled street, making a slight screech. Its grating wail overpowered the sounds of thunder and rain. The gnolls' eyes widened, long ears falling back against their heads. Each took a step backward. The man spoke, in their language: "Leave now." The translation was like a menacing growl. It proved enough. The pair turned and ran down a side street to escape the unnatural warrior and the imminent anger of their leader. A large gnoll at their rear howled in rage, drawing a great-sword and barking for his warriors to attack.

The stillness of the moment was shattered by sudden movement. The storm roared back to life as the remaining gnolls advanced. Eight gnolls rushed Quinsareth, separating him from the townsfolk and their commander. Their leader followed, watching carefully, his massive blade held out before him. Quin waited for them to close, playing the element of surprise. He counted the heartbeats, ticked off the stones in his mind. The game continued, and the next stone was Blood.

Quinsareth charged the first three, releasing Bedlam's howling blade from beneath his cloak. He ducked the first attack, the center gnoll's scimitar whistling over his head. He sidestepped an axe from the right while raising Bedlam to deflect the broadsword on his left. Spinning on his knees, he was grateful for the protection of his greaves between him and the cobblestones of the street. Before the gnoll on his left could recover, he sliced through its abdomen. Gutted, the hyena warrior howled madly as it fell, struggling to keep its innards from pouring out of the wound. Leaping to his feet, he met the attack of the axe-wielding gnoll. Hooking his sword beneath the head of the heavy weapon, he kicked forward into the gnoll's kneecap. The joint cracked and Quin swiftly disarmed the beast. As the unarmed gnoll fell to the ground, Quinsareth turned to face the scimitar, once again arcing toward his neck. This time, he blocked the gnoll's crude slash.

Bedlam screeched as it bit into the heavy-bladed sword, protesting the defensive maneuver and unconcerned by the threat of injury to its wielder. The blade was overcome by an arcane bloodlust, flaring to life its green-hued glow of battle. The gnoll flinched at the magic weapon's surge and pulled back in fear. Quinsareth seized that brief lapse to force the scimitar high with his block, bringing Bedlam down viciously through the gnoll's shoulder and upper chest. The nearly bisected beast toppled backward senselessly, splashing in the gathering puddles. Blank eyes stared at the dead gnoll's five companions, who had slowed their brash charge and circled more cautiously around the enraged ghostwalker. The injured gnoll tried to stand and limp on his damaged knee, carefully eyeing the movements of the quick, silent warrior. Quinsareth looked at the injured beast cruelly, leveling his cold gaze on the wary gnoll. He spoke low, growling under the heavy rain and powerful thunder. Only the gnollish words for "lame dog" rose above the storm. An insult to gnollkind, the title was for those unfit to run with the pack. The injured gnoll turned and limped away in shame and fear, unwilling to face his tribal brethren. Quin observed the others, their cautious steps and trembling blades. The large gnoll once again barked orders to his subordinates.

He commanded them to close and end the battle quickly. None seemed eager to comply, but they crept forward, their ears flat against their doglike heads, growling menacingly. Amid their murmuring threats, Quin picked out the name Gyusk, apparently their leader, not well loved by some of the squad. Beyond the backs of the gnolls, Quin spied an ogre, patiently watching the spectacle. The giant effortlessly held a massive black glaive as he watched the battle over the heads of the gathered crowd. The townsfolk shivered in the cold rain, eyes darting between their captors and the dark warrior who fought them, waiting for a chance to run away from both. The sight of Quinsareth's fair skin, splattered with the gnolls' blood, and his intensely opalescent eyes, like the gaze of a dead man, was monstrous and horrifying. The captives waited breathlessly, as yet unsure of who was the savior and who the villain in the unfolding scenario. Quin was certain of the villain, but had no taste for the title of savior. These people could have been dead, and he still would have fought. It was a rare day that his brand of justice saved the living. He flashed a feral grin at the gnolls' commander and charged recklessly. Bedlam led the advance, humming and flashing brightly, accompanying the lightning overhead.

The gnolls closed swiftly and he reached the center of the group, dodging and tumbling past clumsy attacks. Those attacks were made clumsier by freezing hands and shadow-born fear. Quinsareth quickly parried two blades that came close and rolled into a somersault to leap at the center gnoll. The beast yelped and tried to avoid the madman, but Bedlam sliced through the gnoll's shoulder and bit deep into its collarbone. Quinsareth used the bone as a fulcrum in a tumbling jump. Flipping over the screaming gnoll's head, he landed in front of the startled but ready Gyusk. They exchanged quick blows, blades ringing in a blur of steel and rage. Behind Quin, the other gnolls turned to catch up to the ghostwalker. Quinsareth pushed Gyusk's blade back just enough to land a kick into the gnoll commander's jaw. Gyusk staggered briefly, spitting teeth, and Quin spun to meet those behind him. Swinging a leg low to unbalance the stunned commander, Quin sent Gyusk splashing into the mud. Two of the five remaining gnolls closed again, unconcerned for their leader. The other three, one of them bleeding, held back, clearly fearful of the thinning odds against them. Gyusk spat and sputtered on the ground behind Quin, slowly pushing himself up and searching the puddles for the hilt of his sword. Quinsareth engaged the advancing pair. The fight had carried him closer to the frightened townsfolk, and he could hear the sobbing of widowed wives and the screams of inconsolable children above the clash of steel on steel. He fought harder, stalled briefly by the synchronized blades of the pair of gnolls. He held his ground patiently, waiting for the proper opening and listening carefully for the commander to rise or for the ogre to approach. He landed two quick slices on the gnolls as he heard the growl of Gyusk behind him. Bedlam hummed a shrill warning as the injured pair yelped and hopped backward, beyond the reach of the biting blade. Quin spun, kicking Gyusk in the jaw again before the big gnoll could rise.

Spotting the gnoll's greatsword, Quinsareth lowered into a crouch on one leg, the other kicking the loose sword away, flipping it into a deeper puddle at the street's edge. He thrust Bedlam forward and leveled his piercing stare, testing the resolve of the gnolls. The bold pair stood bleeding from the deep wounds that had flayed open their furred jowls. They tilted their heads oddly, protecting their aching wounds from the stinging rain, but held their ground warily.

Quin was amused by their newfound respect for the long reach and sharp edge of the eager Bedlam. He gave them his feral smile once again, his ghostly face spattered with the blood of many gnolls. Bedlam, reacting to the thoughts of its master, gave a terrifying screech, mimicking the pained howls of the hyena warriors as rain dripped pink from its bloodied edge. Before Quinsareth could renew his wild attack, powerful arms grabbed him from behind, pinning his own arms to his sides.

Determinedly, he maintained his grip on the hilt of the still-howling Bedlam. Gyusk had recovered swiftly and taken advantage of Bedlam's screams to surprise the ghostwalker. The gnoll bit deeply into Quinsareth's shoulder and neck, piercing easily through the heavy cloak and leather armor. Quinsareth gritted his teeth in pain and frustration, but remained focused on the two gnolls who now grinned as only their hyena faces could, more gruesome for their bleeding jaws and the bloodlust in their flashing eyes. Swaggering, they approached the helpless warrior, one raising a blade to cut Quinsareth's throat, the other drawing back to slice open his belly. The trio of cowardly gnolls stood at the edge of the street, yipping and gnashing their teeth in anticipation of the easy kill.



***** | Bloodwalk | *****