Part 3. The Hanging Gardens of Festerfern Gorse
THE CORPSES DANGLED, dozens twirling slow in a synchronous sway throughout the various stages of decay. The corpse posts driven into the soft muck had mostly tilted, sagged, bent. A few had fallen. Black hollow eyes regarded Madam Spew from the flickering dark. An albino crow tore a strip of flesh from the toothless maw of a gnoll corpse and then tore off squawking into the night, flapping off on ragged wing.
Was there anyone still here?
Madam Spew and her party slunk warily through the shamble of hovels and corpse posts, nearing the crooked heart of Festerfern Gorse. The village well. It sat crooked and wretched and old, bathed in waning moonlight. Mulleted Donvannos strode on point, his twin bone steak knives crossed silent and maybe, just maybe, deadly. The Butcher of Cypress Street, Izula, limped along by Madam Spew’s side. Her great saw-sword scraped along behind, cutting a line through the muck. Keep the most dangerous closest. The arcanist, Mindel Pfilsh, crept along off to the right while Gimpy roved off to the left, sniffing for enemies and reeking piles of dung alike.
Not snore nor fart was to be heard reverberating from within the ramshackle hovels. The occasional swamp owl hoot or the buzz of insects was the sole respite from claustrophobic silence. Some of the citizens were no doubt nocterns, out and about, which in a backwater dung heap like this generally meant molesting the local farm animals. Others, however, no doubt would be sleeping. Yet, evidence of neither sleep nor goat molestation lay present. Curiouser and curiouser…
Festerfern Gorse was notable not only for its high death rate due to its namesake but also that it was a melting pot of races. The poor, the hungry, the downtrodden, the drunk, the indigent, the even more poor… Pretty much the lowest, most misshapen, and horribly inbred amongst all the races eventually sought refuge in Festerfern Gorse. It was the only place in the Craw that would take them in, and instead of the customary species of outright-bloody-backstabbing-murder that most of the Craw offered, Festerfern Gorse offered them the warm, soft, stultifying embrace of passive suicide that even the most cowardly of goblins could commit, festerscorn fever.
Gimpy tore off suddenly into the dark, chittering incoherently.
Madam Spew froze. “What is it?”
“Has he caught a scent?” Donvannos asked.
“How in the Shades should I know?” Madam Spew shrugged. “Maybe he caught fester-scorn fever.” She shrugged past the corpse of something that might have once been human. “Keep moving.”
They slid deeper into the forest of the hanging damned.
“Who would do such a thing?” Donvannos gawped around him.
“Exquisite…” Madam Spew murmured as she inspected the work. She grabbed a foot. The knife work had been delicate. Precise. “Extraordinary.” The work of a master. Far beyond her own ability though she would scarce admit it. And there were so many. An impressive blood tithe, but where was the gold tithe? It had been less and less the past four years. Was Samharm skimming more than was generally accepted? Or was he trying to make up the lack of a gold tithe with blood? Nay. Something was amiss here… But what?
“Hsssst!” Donvannos dropped to a knee behind a corpse post. He made hand signals in the moonlight to Madam Spew indicating that—
“Huh?” Madam Spew croaked. “What?” She flashed a series of mocking gestures. “I don’t speak moron.”
“I believe the human was indicating my presence,” a tall cyclops announced, appearing from the shadows beyond the well. Long dark Wrackolyte robes hung from his massive shoulders. A trimmed beard graced his chin; otherwise, he was bald. “I am Wrackolyte Samharm. I have come to greet you.”
“What atrocities have you committed here, cyclops!?” Donvannos pointed with a quavering steak knife.
“Silence, maggot!” Madam Spew snapped her whip —CRACK — mere inches from Donvannos’s face. “It’s not your place to question a Wrackolyte!” She whipped again — but Donvannos caught the end. Somehow. Within clenched fist, he gripped it tight.
Izula’s saw-sword angled up to the ready, clutched between her massive gnarled fists.
Mindel merely watched, cracking his knuckles, muttering to himself.
“As you say,” Donvannos relinquished the trapped whip, “Madam.”
Madam Spew coiled her whip length by length, disgust unrelenting in her venomous glare.
“You have come to collect the tithe,” Wrackolyte Samharm announced, breaking the homicidal tension.
“Yes, but we have come to investigate why no gold tithes have been sent in months,” Madam Spew croaked. “Which is your job, is it not Wrackolyte Samharm?”
“Aye, that it is,” Wrackolyte Samharm answered.
“You are aware of the price of failure?” Madam Spew’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. Something… But what?
“You were a somebody back in Cesstern a decade ago.” This Wrackolyte was no buffoon. “A big somebody, they all say.” And with plans to become even bigger. “And now you’re a nobody in charge of nowhere. Sting much?”
The big cyclops just stared with that lone eye.
“So what’s the story?” Madam Spew waddled closer.
“There was, regrettably, no more tithes available to send.” Wrackolyte Samharm glanced around at all the bodies hanging from all the posts. The silent majority.
“You, tithed the entire village?” Madam Spew gasped awe and regret. Awe that it’d been done. Regret that she’d not been the one to do it. But he was lying. Somehow. Somewhere. “Err… Most commendable work.”
“You sick bastard!” Donvannos hissed. “Some were children, Madam Spew. We must dispatch this monstrosity!”
“By Grimnir, where are you from?” Madam Spew glanced at Wrackolyte Samharm and shrugged in obvious embarrassment. “Forgive me. Hirelings.” The heart slung around her neck beat slowly. “I need some good slaves. Mute ones.” There was a trap here.
“And what happened to Tricorn?” Donvannos demanded. “Where is he? If you—”
Madam Spew cut Donvannos off with a raised hand. “And while your blood tithe is admittedly impressive, Wrackolyte Samharm, I must again inquire—”
“Where the gold tithe is?” Wrackolyte Samharm finished her question. He strode over to a large sturdy barn and laid a hand upon the massive doors. “It lies within. I loaded it into the wagon, but the axel has broken, and the wainwright is … hanging over there.” He nodded at a large troll corpse rocking gently in the breeze. “If you could help me lift it, and then brace it, I might be able to detach the axel and replace it. Fortunately, the wainwright made one before I … tithed him.”
“Fortunately,” echoed Madam Spew.
“In here.” Wrackolyte Samharm grasped a massive wooden door handle. “Towards the back.”
Yes. Here we go…
Wrackolyte Samharm drew open the massive doors. They creaked and groaned and resisted, but the Wrackolyte proved the stronger and wrestled the thick doors ajar. Dark silence poured out from within. “Allow me to light a lantern. For the humans.” He stepped into darkness. Disappearing. The sound of rummaging from the liquid dark and then, “Ah. Here it is.” A soft orange glow appeared from within. “Please, it won’t take long.”
“Then, by all means, we shall help…” Madam Spew shoved Donvannos ahead of her into the barn. And then Mindel. Finally, Izula. She paused before entering. How would it all play out? Would he smash their skulls with a wrench? Throttle them? Skewer them with arcane words? Madam Spew tightened her grip upon her whip. The wagon was indeed broken. She could see the axel had split at the juncture of one great spoked wheel. Moonlight poured in through the door in the far wall. Wrackolyte Samharm stood bathed saintly in the light. Bending then, grasping the corner of the wagon with his great hands, he lifted.
Madam Spew watched. He gambles now, showing us his neck to gain our trust.
“Rrrrg… I need you to,” Wrackolyte Samharm grunted, “Rrrrrg … hold this up for but an instant whilst I slide the block beneath it.” The block was a round cut of oak tree trunk five-feet tall and seven in diameter, leaning against the wall by the far door. “Ready yourselves. It is … heavy.”
Madam Spew noticed a rope tied to a massive eyehook screwed into the tree trunk. “Well, get to it, morons!” The eyehook-rope disappeared into the dark of the triangle trusses crisscrossing above. “Get to it. Hold it up for him!”
Donvannos whispered hate with his eyes as he, Mindel, and Izula gathered at the edge of the wagon, finding their grips. Madam Spew uncoiled her whip. Where did the rope go? She peered up, deciphering shadows. Something heavy, a bloated swamp-cow perhaps, suspended above?
“Ready?” Wrackolyte Samharm grunted.
“Ready.” Donvannos dug his heels in.
“Ready.” Mindel drew back his sleeves.
“Croooooak.” Izula reached behind her.
“Now!” Madam Spew yelled.
A few things happened instantaneously then. Wrackolyte Samharm let go of the wagon, and it dropped crashing to the floor. Wood cracked and shattered, splinters flying as Mindel screamed and Donvannos dove back, ducking, rolling as the Butcher of Cypress Street’s saw-sword arced past him, ripping ragged through the Wrackolyte as he bolted past. Madam Spew’s whip cracked in the darkness—“!@#STOP#@!” she spat.
Wrackolyte Samharm shrugged off her warped command and roared out the door, knocking the huge tree trunk over with a THUD! The eyehook-rope zipped hot and fast through unseen eyehooks and the two huge barn doors slammed shut, trapping them inside.
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