Ruins of Al’huran
Dense jungle flora and vines were covering almost every inch of the ancient stone structures of the city. The pavements were covered in moss and puddles, and trees were growing in the middle of buildings. However, there we no signs of animal life, only insects and birds that were high up in the treetops. Stormhold soldiers were paving the way through the lush green bushes and branches blocking the pathway, and the officers followed suit. General Galeran and Admiral Fowler were discussing the situation as they watched Declan leading the way. There was an odd smell reeking from this entire area, and flies were buzzing around their heads as they moved deeper into the ruins.
A clearing revealed itself on top of a slope not far from their current position. The former Admiral pointed the men in that direction and stated with an assured mind. “That spot will be excellent for our needs.”
Galeran came up alongside him and scouted ahead as he replied, “a good call. All right everyone, establish a temporary camp on that location as soon as possible. We do not know when the vanghouls will make their return, so we need to be prepared. Cut down the nearest trees and form palisades around the perimeter.”
Heeding the General’s command, the units hastily moved towards the clearing and started the preparations.
Hours later, tents and stations had been readied, and torches were neatly placed to light up the campground. Guardsmen were patrolling the area and scouts were positioned around on the sides of the camp. The chef had been able to set up campfires, but they were running short on the food supplies. Hunting was now a vital task for survival. A small group of four soldiers moved into the woods with bows and swords to track down any type of animal they could find. Fishing wasn’t an option either as the vanghouls were likely to pick them off one by one if they ventured all the way back to the coast. They had to move swiftly before nightfall, and the light rain that had started to fall did not make the situation any better.
Searching carefully through the woodland that enclosed the ruins, one of the men noticed movement between the trees in the distance. Raising his hand to alert the others, they crouched and snuck up on the potential threat. Once they got a visual, they saw a catlike creature. The one in the front stated curiously to the one on his right-hand side. “Is that a panther?”
“It sure looks like it, but what’s wrong with its skin?”
The darkened fur of the animal seemed torn and ravaged as if he had been tortured for ages. Blood was dripping from its deformed teeth while it chewed on a rabbit. Readying his bow, the one in front spoke with grave concern as he aimed at the beast. “What the hell is that thing?” he murmured.
The moment the bow was drawn, the panther instantly turned his head in their direction, staring at them with bloodshot and faintly glowing eyes. Their moral rapidly fell as the beast jumped out of the way and started dashing towards them at an incredible speed. Firing the arrow and missing the target, the soldiers screamed out in terror as they made a run for it. Putting its claws deep into the bark of a tree, the panther climbed upwards and jumped after one of them.
Knocked to the ground, the soldier in the back cried out for a brief moment before the beast bit through his neck. With flesh between its fangs, the panther rushed after the others, only killing its prey without consuming it.
Back at the basecamp, the cries echoed in the distance as the beast hunted down the last three. The soldiers quickly formed formations and gathered by the edge of the clearing, awaiting orders. Declan, Fowler, and Nathan stepped outside the tent and gazed into the dimly lit forest border.
Seeing movement in the bushes, the archers aimed at the rustling and maintained a readied stance for whatever was about to come out into the open. Covered in blood and deep wounds, a last remaining soldier stumbled out in bad shape and tried to make his way back. Nathan immediately ran over to the soldiers, shouting for them to retrieve the man. However, before they got to him, three more panthers jumped out from the bushes and chased the man towards the camp.
Galeran drew his blade and pointed it at the animals, yelling at full capacity, “open fire! Soldiers, at the ready!”
The archers unleashed a rain of arrows in the direction of the cats, but only managed to wound those that were hit instead of killing them. Forming shield formations, the units of Stormhold prepared their spears behind a shield wall, awaiting their attacks.
The wounded soldier who was running for his life was about to get caught when suddenly the panther was kicked into the air and flew several meters to the side. It was the old vanghoul, Arthouras who came to his rescue, followed by Malisha, Feregreth, and Fraya. Nathan saw the giant coming up next to the wounded man and ordered the archers to prepare for another volley. However, just before he was about to give the command, he heard the voice of Feregreth shouting from a distance behind the vanghoul.
“No, hold your fire!” Feregreth shouted.
Seeing the Captain coming up alongside that beast caused grave confusion amongst the officers and the soldiers.
Acknowledging that something was going on, Nathan ordered the men to stand down. Lord Vordrath roared fiercely at the demonic cat creatures who were gathering around him, which seemed to make them back down and flee into the shadows.
Although, one panther had snuck up behind the soldiers' shield wall and dove its claws into the back of a couple of people. Panic spread momentarily as the cat engaged. Feregreth and Fraya ran over to the soldiers as fast as they could, and she readied her bow, firing a single arrow that got him in the back. Falling down on his side, the panther seemed to have been paralyzed by the shot. With his blade lifted into the air, the Galeran was about to swing it over its neck when the old vanghoul shouted.
“Don’t kill it!”
Looking up at the vanghoul who stood fairly close to them now, Nathan spoke in a disgusted tone. “You don’t decide its faith.”
“If it dies, it’ll take you all with it!”
Feregreth glanced over at Arthouras in confusion as he walked over to the general, gesturing for him to stand down while addressing the giant. “What do you mean by that?” he asked.
“These are scourged creatures that are harboring a plague. The moment it dies a substance is released into the air, killing absolutely everything in its vicinity in a short amount of time.”
Turning his attention back to Galeran, Feregreth continued while trying to reassure them that they needed to listen. “General, I believe you should heed his warning.”
“How can you trust anything this beast says?”
“He could have let that man die out there, but he didn’t. I can only vouch for my brief time with him, but sir, I believe this one is telling the truth.”
Staring into the eyes of the vanghoul, Nathan gestured for him to get rid of the animal, which he did. As Arthouras carried the cat back to the forest border alongside Malisha, Galeran glanced over at the woman next to the captain, asking curiously, “who is this?”
Before Feregreth got to reply, Fraya stated that she went down with the Arkanvail ship that capsized just before theirs did.
Understanding why she said what she had said, Feregreth refrained from making any comments and played along.
Buying her story, Nathan ordered soldiers to bring her into safety while he discussed the situation further with the captain. Once she was out of hearing distance, the general went up into Feregreth’s face and spoke firmly. “Under no circumstances do you put your trust in the enemy, understood? They’re not our allies, they’re uncontrollable beasts.”
“I understand, but sir, the old one wants to make a truce to end this war. I promised him an audience with you, will you at least hear what he has to say?”
“He wants an end to what he started? You can’t possibly believe what he’s saying? But, if nothing else, he might give us valuable information.”
As the captain was about to reply, the general shut him down and told him to go into the camp.
Hesitantly, Feregreth started walking into the base as Nathan stated in a more pleasant tone. “I’m glad to see you’re alive, captain. I’m sure Declan would like to know that you’re okay as well.”
Turning his head back towards the general, Feregreth nodded respectfully and continued his walk.
Nathan stood alongside the soldiers and watched as the two vanghouls dropped off the dead animal. There was no question in the general’s eyes, his hatred for these beasts ran deep. As nightfall finally consumed the camp, the vanghouls were brought inside to be questioned about their intentions. Fear and unrest were shared amongst the men because of their presence.
Standing on the top of a structure not far from the camp, heavy breathing came from the angered vanghoul, Nekada, as he was gazing upon the Stormhold camp. With the Vanquished Cleaver in his hand, he waited and watched from afar. There was no way to go into the encampment alone without getting killed, but a sly smile began to creep across his face as he stepped down into the shadows of the night.