Nicholas Kopp

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“Luck shines on us t’day, boys! Wrangle the bastard to that tree. I want’a watch the killer squirm ‘fore I gut ‘im and slice ‘im up like he did Holan!”

The brisk morning air invigorated the inhabitants of the ancient and ominous forest, An’heluc. Galebills took flight from their roosts, their massive reddish-brown wings propelling them in pursuit of fearful, burrowing rodents. To the east, the distant roar of a kraeth--a gargantuan, black-furred beast twice the size of the native bears--bellowed dominantly, sending forth a herd of mindless elk desperate to flee the monster’s sword-like claws. Men dared not venture into these woods, and the brave few that fancied themselves courageous enough to tread its twisting road were presumably additions to An’heluc’s bone collection, as the village folk often agreed. But upon this morning, a band of such men--ruffians, in truth--braved the forest’s predatory grounds to hunt prey of their own.

Korvinth was prodded out of his slumber by shrill cheers and reckless boot stomps nearly twenty paces from his leather hide tent. Fair-skinned and youthful yet hardened, the muscular man rising from his bearskin roll possessed long brown hair that cascaded down to his shoulders and a scraggly beard that had not been trimmed for several moons. He was not at all confused by the commotion outside; he grasped his longsword’s hilt as he exited the tent flaps to welcome his visitors.

“Well ‘ere he is, bright as day!” barked the hooded man wearing chestnut-brown leather garments. “And ‘ere I was thinkin’ we would ‘ave to pull ya out!” He loosened a boisterous chuckle, and his lackeys followed suit only after their leader scowled at them.

 “We got word you was hidin’ in these parts, too afraid to show yer damned face after ya offed me brother! No more games, coin whore! We are going to fasten ya to this tree and give that kraeth a nice feast!”

Korvinth, his bare torso revealing scores of scars from countless bouts and battles, brandished and twirled his sword as his flickering eyes fell upon each man’s face. They were a pitiful sight, even by the standards of low-status bandits. Collectively they lacked teeth and hair, their garments were tattered and muddy, and one of their company was nearly blind in both eyes. The men were clearly fear-stricken despite their earnest efforts to masquerade with facades of pride and confidence. “Holan, like the lot of you, was a venomous heathen with little care for consequence. I do not mourn him. I suspect the village of Gaul, whose beloved elder was slaughtered by your cretin of a brother, Idan, does not mourn the loss of such scum either,” Korvinth retorted calmly.

Idan’s face grew visibly red and flustered with immense rage. “You murder for coin, ya high-and-mighty, pompous liar! What makes ya think yer betta than us!”. Korvinth responded unwaveringly, “You kill people, but I kill beasts.”

 “Enough o’ this fool’s yappin’!” Idan exclaimed angrily as he motioned for his men to advance upon the encampment. He charged at Korvinth with all haste as his subordinates reluctantly and halfheartedly followed. With little effort, Korvinth sidestepped Idan’s poorly swung dagger as his sword rose in a flash. Idan looked back in shock to discover his severed hand alongside a thick stream of blood on the forest dirt, the dagger still in its clutch. The group of men halted in their tracks, horrified by the spectacle. In one last graceful thrust, Korvinth drove his Sol-steel sword into Idan’s heart as he freed a final, painful sigh. Idan’s body toppled to the ground with an audible thud near the hooves of Korvinth’s horse, startling her into a rear kick. Her back leg drove itself firmly into the head of a terrified bandit, killing him instantly. The rest had seen enough and fled as fast as their legs could travel, tripping over vines and tangled roots as they escaped in dreadful terror. Korvinth wiped the crimson sheen from his blade and went to pack his belongings.

Two night-falls later, Korvinth rode upon his black mare, Mara, to the gates of Varun. He peered longingly at the heavily trodden road, the very same road upon which he chased his brother, Kalen, when they were but young, naive boys. He averted his gaze, disturbed by the memory. The inner courtyard still bustled with familiar faces: Vordi the blacksmith’s hammer reverberated with each clang, while Lady Malesa offered goods in her usual, jaunty spirit. “Tatos and carrots!” she shrieked, “Five gold pieces for an arm’s-full!”. Korvinth freed a slight grin as he trotted to the Howling Wraith Tavern. He could sense the many stares of unfamiliar passersby fixated quizzically on his sword and leather-chainmail armor. Korvinth moved to enter the musky establishment moments before a wiry drunk of a man was flung through the doorway.

A tall, slender elf with twilight hair stood at the door, his butcher knife drawn and at the ready. “I will have no talk of ill-fated rebellions against those of non-human descent in my place of livelihood, friend. Please make your way back to the pigpen, if you would be so kind.” The man collapsed several times before shouting in between hiccups, “You haven’ seen th-huu-last o’ me ya pointy-eared-huuuu-churl!”. The elf shook his head in disappointment before locking his piercing eyes with Korvinth’s.

“They tracked you that far this time?”

“Are you surprised, Saewyn?”

Saewyn’s eyes shot up from the wooden mug on the counter and directly at Korvinth. “To follow you into An’heluc? Aye, you could say I am surprised. Scoundrels with their talents-nay, the lack thereof, shall I say-would not have lasted a night without an experienced guide. Someone aided them.” Korvinth surveyed the tavern to assess the presence of potential eavesdroppers. “The head of the snake has been severed. Without Idan, the cravens will cut and run.”

The elf’s expression shifted from reluctant agreement to dismay. “Perhaps, but there are surely stronger forces on your trail. You have fulfilled a great many contracts.” Sensing that he had dampened the mood, Saewyn added, “But you are cleverer than most. Always remember the lessons I taught you as a boy, and you will never fall to their ilk.”

“...the lessons I taught you as a boy...” These words sifted through Korvinth’s mind as he drifted back to his childhood. He saw through the eyes of his former self skipping home when he witnessed his father arguing explosively with a cloaked man outside. Fearful and confused, young Korvinth hid behind a bush to conceal himself. His father drew a dagger as he exclaimed, “Be gone from my home! Have I not given you enough already?”. An arrow suddenly struck him in the chest as another cloaked man descended from an adjacent roof, gripping a short bow. Korvinth jolted in shock but remained behind the bush, immobilized by dread as tears slid down his face. He watched his brother Kalen run outside to his father’s rescue, only to discover that the shot was fatal. The cloaked man loosened another arrow, and Kalen’s body plummeted by his father’s side. Korvinth collapsed in heartbreak and despair, and the world faded to black.

It was not long after that the dazed and exhausted boy rose from the ground as two thin hands hoisted him up. Korvinth felt no urge to escape as he peered over his shoulder. A towering elf with black hair spun him around and looked into Korvinth’s eyes sympathetically. “Fear not, child, for I know the beasts responsible for this. Today we accept our grief, but tomorrow...tomorrow the hunt begins. Come, we have much to do.”

Korvinth returned to the present as Saewyn jostled his shoulder. “A midday nightmare?” Saewyn jested as he polished a flagon. “Yes, something like that.” Suddenly recalling the meaning of his visit, Korvinth outstretched a rolled piece of parchment with a human ear nailed to it. “The contract of Idan, leader of the Bloodied Brotherhood, completed and sealed.” Saewyn quickly grasped the parchment and stowed it under the counter. “Keep the gold as well,” Korvinth continued, “I have enough for the road ahead.” Saewyn nodded then replied, “Where will you go now?”.

“I have heard whispers of a band killing non-humans west of Calorn. There are always more beasts to hunt.” Saewyn chortled. “Indeed there are!” With that, the two bid each other farewell as Korvinth departed. He galloped beyond Varun’s gates to pursue new prey.

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