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Embers of Black - Chapter Eight

Patrick Braddock
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The sounds a scuffle woke Talomanes from his dozing slumber. An unknown feminine voice swore loudly, which caused a stir in the dozing woman beside the paladin. Something cold and metal brushed past his arm, causing him to recoil. A blade? His hazy mind was still trying to anchor itself firmly back in reality.

Crouching, he began to make his way towards the unknown voice just as it called out, "Hold! We need help! We've got someone who's injured bad, she'll die without aid!"

Talomanes was turning that over in his mind as something large and heavy crashed into him. Reaching out to grappled with whatever it was that had hit him, he felt a mailed body and armor limbs. His grasping fingers were cut on a razored blade. About to strike at his attacker, he paused, feeling the dead weight of the person and realizing they were unconscious, at best.

"I have your wounded friend here, I think," he called to the patch of darkness where the female voice had come from.

"What? No, I have Illandra right�" The voice trailed off, giving way to a panicked gasp. "Oh, no! Ix! Not him, too!" The weight on the paladin lifted and the sound of an armored body hitting ground came from beside him. "Someone, you have to help them!" The voice sounded almost in tears.

A soft radiance lit the air suddenly, coming from a glowing ball of magic that floated above the ashes of the fire. The light reveal a woman wearing boots, trousers, and the tattered remnants of a cloak with nothing underneath. Blushing slightly as he averted his eyes, Talomanes studied the two people she was fussing over. One was another woman, wearing a fine black riding dress and a deep crimson cloak. For some reason, she seemed familiar�

The third new arrival was a man laying face-down on the floor. A shock of white hair and a flowing cloak nearly the same color as the wounded woman's but made differently were all the paladin could make out. Carefully, he turned the man over, revealing a body armored in blackened mail and with black steel plates protecting the more vulnerable parts of his limbs. His skin was pale, but Talomanes didn't know if that was the natural coloring or from loss of blood, as a trickle of sticky crimson leaked from a corned of the man's mouth.

"Ashera," he called. "This one is hurt bad. He's bleeding on the inside, I think." The cleric approached him timidly from where she had bedded down near the far wall, her eyes taking in the three strangers and himself.

"I don't have much healing power left," she whispered. "I haven't had time to ask Lathander to grace me with more of his divine gifts." Still, she knelt beside the wounded man, beseeching the God of Rebirth and Renewal for his aid. Her hands flickered with a brief blue glow, though nothing seemed to happen to her patient.

Putting his fingers to the man's neck, Talomanes felt for his pulse. Faint�but it's stable�he'll live if he can hold on long enough for Ashera to regain her spells. As he rose from the man, he saw that the gentle cleric had moved on to the women. Approaching slowly, he caught part of the conversation between Ashera and the woman wearing the tattered cloak.

"And she'll be alright?" Flowing brown hair framed a face that was filled with concern. The set of her face and the slight points to her ears bespoke elven blood, perhaps half-elven.

"Yes, she'll be fine. And so will you. The best you can do now is sleep." Ashera guided the woman to a place beside the fire, which she rekindled, letting the magical light die away.

Talomanes bent over the other woman, a raven-haired elf with a regalness that was evident even while she was unconscious. Quickly, he drew her cloak around her body, doing what he could to help keep her warm. He turned and paid the same attention to the man, the one the brown-haired lady had called Ix.

A man named Ix who possess a look I've never seen before and two elvish women, all of whom appear out of nowhere and quite literally trip on us. Wonderingly, the paladin shook his head, casting his eyes around the small shelter for Naestra.

The woman was standing near the curtain outside, clad only in her thin shift. Her right arm was wrapped tightly across her chest as her left dangled by her side. Oddly enough, she was holding one of her long daggers with her left hand, the point brushing the bare skin of her thigh.

Dagger�Something seemed to be hanging right in front of the paladin, but for the life of him, he couldn't put the pieces together. As she caught sight of him studying her, Naestra regained her composure, straightening up and pulling her shoulders back, which caused her breasts to strain against the thin fabric of her shift.

Coughing to cover his blush, Talomanes knelt beside the fire, smiling as he watched Ashera administer to the brown-haired elven maiden, who also seemed to have been wounded.

Leaning against the flat, solid stone of the wall, the paladin let his head fall back against the cold rock, his eyes closing. Within a span of moments, he was asleep.

A stir of cold brought the paladin to his senses some hours later. Stretching, he knuckled his eyes, working away the sleep that still lingered in his mind.

The fire had burned down to glowing embers while he slept, providing just enough light to see the cracked leather curtain over the entrance swaying gently, as if someone had just left.

Rising from his place by the wall, Talomanes stooped down to pick up his chain shirt and his shredded cloak. It won't do much to protect against the wind, but it's better than nothing, he thought as he worked into the chill metal shirt.

Being careful not to jostle the sleeping form of the brown-haired elf who was sprawled on the ground, he made his way to the curtain, pausing to slip the baldric the held his massive sword over his shoulder. With that, he slipping out into the frigid air of the tundra. The wind had ceased, leave the plains eerily quiet. The moon bathed the icy ground with a pale light, the snow catching and throwing back the radiance, giving the whole area a vaguely dreamlike quality. The vague grayness at the eastern horizon hinted at a dawn not too far off.

Casting about for whoever had slipped from the shelter, the paladin spotted a shadow that was moving silently away, heading north, towards the city of Develor.

Easing his blade in its scabbard and keeping a wary eye out for orcs or other enemies, Talomanes crept after the shadow, trying to make as little noise as he could. Bending his head to study the tracks in the crust of snow, a sense of danger quickly fell over him. Looking up, he saw that the shadow had disappeared.

He spun, his two-handed sword arcing out of is scabbard to ward off a knife strike aimed at his back, opening a hole in his defense that allow a second blade to dart in nicking, his right forearm where his mail provided no protection.

The moonlight revealed a person in dark leathers, head wrapped in cloth so that only the glint of eyes showed, twin long knives gripped tightly in hands that were as steady as steel.

"Naestra?" Talomanes called quietly.

A snarl was his answer as the figure lunged at him, twin blades flashing in a rapid succession of strikes. The two-handed sword the paladin wielded was excellent for fighting most adversaries, but against the wicked blades he faced now, he saw he was overmatched. Stinging from a half dozen shallow cuts on his arms, he called again. "Naestra? It's me, Talomanes. What's going on?"

"You were supposed to be dead, fool!" the woman hissed at him. She came at him again, whirling around his blade, her left-hand dagger flicking out at him, barely missing his left eye and scoring a deep gash across his cheek.

Roaring in pain and rage, Talomanes stopped holding back. He threw his weight into a lightning-fast strike at rang against the woman's dagger, knocking her back slightly. Stepping in, he let go of the hilt of his sword with his right hand, drawing back and smashing his gloved fist into the woman's head. Dazed, she stumbled backwards, her guard dropping as the paladin swung again, his fist hitting her hard, sending her sprawling on the snow.

Kicking the daggers out of hands gone limp, he circled her, prodding her lightly with the tip of his blade. Satisfied that she was out of the fight, he resheathed his blade. Tearing a strip of cloth from his tattered cloak, he wiped the blood from his face, pressing the cloth against the tear in his cheek to suppress the bleeding.

His mind spun at a furious pace. Why, after all this time, did she try to kill me? A few pieces clicked in his mind. Was it Ashera? Thinking further, a few more solutions came up. Maybe it was the arrival of those three tonight? Still, he didn't know for sure that the answer was. "Why?" he asked the motionless form.

"Because," the sprawled woman answered, surprising the paladin and causing him to draw his blade again. When she made no move other than to unwind the cloth from her head, he finally lowered his blade. "My guild wanted you dead as a message to your temple to keep their noses out of places they didn't belong."

"Which guild do you belong to?" he asked her, though he already had a hunch.

A brief pause follow by something that sounded like a soft sigh. "I guess it doesn't matter anymore. If you don't kill me, they will. I'm a member of the Blacksword Alliance."

Talomanes nodded to himself. Before he left, rumors had reached the ears of the elders of the Temple of Torm about a rival thieves' guild that had cropped up, leading to warfare both above and under the streets with the "official" thieves' guild of Waterdeep, the Xanathar's Guild.

Naestra continued, "I came to Waterdeep a few months back. They sent me because the Alliance felt they needed someone of my talents there."

"Just what are you talents," the paladin asked quietly.

"I'm an assassin. You were to be my first mark."

Gripping his sword tight, confused and angry, he asked, "Why did you travel all this way with me? Why not simply have stuck a dagger in my back within the first week of our travel?" He held his sword stiffly, his vows as a Paladin of Torm holding him back from killing the woman who had sought to kill him.

"I don't know," she answered softly. "I couldn't do it. There was no reason for you to die. After those first days, I stopped caring about fulfilling my task and just enjoyed travelling. Until tonight, I had been content to ride with you, wherever it was you were headed."

Until tonight�Ashera�With that, the tension went out of him, his sword's tip falling to the snow. He dropped the blade, falling to his knees beside the female assassin. "Naestra�" he said softly.

For a long moment, she didn't stir. Then, ever so slowly, she turned her face towards him, tears plain on her cheeks. "All my life�" she trailed off, shaking her head slightly. Her face hardened as she flashed into motion, drawing her knees up and kicking into herself into the air, twisting to land on the balls of her feet. Snatching up her long knives, she held them before her, gazing at Talomanes with contempt.

The paladin remained kneeling as the assassin closed in, the first glint of sunlight cresting the horizon reflecting off the blades in her hands. Her face was a mask of cold ruthlessness as she neared him, almost within striking distance. Suddenly, she jerked, blinking in confusion. Her brows drew together in puzzlement as she dropped to her knees, the knives tumbling from fingers gone numb. She fell face down into the snow, a black-fletched arrow buried in her back.

"Nooooo!" His mind filled with rage and vengeance, the paladin sprang to his feet, snatching up his sword as he rushed headlong towards the party of orcs that had snuck up on them, heedless of the arrows falling around him.

Sprinting across the distance with a speed borne of fury, he closed rapidly with the dark-clothed humanoids. With a scream of pure berserker fury, his blade flashed in an overhead arc, crashed through skull and splitting the nearest orc from crown to crotch, the two halves of the creature falling in opposite directions.

With blinding speed he lashed out again, gutting a second orc as it dropped its bow, catching it with its sword halfdrawn. The remaining two orcs turns to run.

With two quick steps, a third of the evil humanoids joined its other two companions on the ground, its head still rolling along the snow. The fourth orc thought it had escaped death when a whistling whoosh came to its ears a split second before a massive blade crashed into its back, hurling the beast forward as the momentum of the throw carried it onward.

Retrieving the blade, Talomanes surveyed his grim handiwork. Four orcs dead in a score of heartbeats. Feeling no pride in this butchery, only a sense of loss, the paladin cleaned his blade and resheathed it as he broke into a ragged run towards the fallen Naestra. As he reached her, he saw that blood had formed a dark stain on the snow around her. Kneeling beside her, he checked her wound, saw that the arrow had sunk deep into her back, nearly reaching her heart. With a grimace, he jerked the shaft loose, tossing it aside. Gingerly, he rolled her over, lifting her so she was off the ground.

Gazing down at the small woman in his arms, he was struck by how innocent she seemed, her face serene. Her eyes were closed, a bit of snow flecking her eyelashes. Stripping the glove from his hand, Talomanes brushed a stray strand of hair from her face, tucking it behind her ear. As he did, he felt a slight warmth on his thumb.

Frowning, he pressed his fingers to her neck, feeling for a pulse. For a long moment, he felt nothing. Then, ever so slightly, he felt a fitful thrum beneath his fingers. She's dying�nearly dead already�and there's nothing I can do�Ashera is spent, there's no healer from here to Develor�Bleakness pressed in on him as he watched the dying woman he cradled. Assassin though you may be, he told her silently, you are still my comrade and my companion, someone with whom I've shared much these past weeks. He reached up, wipinga stray tear from his cheek before letting his hand fall to his waist, his fingertips brushing his belt pouch.

His belt pouch�Of course! Hope filled him as he tore open his pouch, digging out the small leather case. Tossing it to the ground beside him, he worked it open with one hand, hurriedly pulling out a small vial of golden liquid. Working the stopped out with his teeth, he brought the vial to Naestra's lips.

"Drink this," he urged her quietly as he poured the healing potion into her mouth, praying to Torm for his aid even as a slight worm of fear squirmed in his gut. If it's too late� Tossing the empty vial aside, he massaged her throat with his fingertips, trying to get her to swallow the liquid. It ended up spilling out of her mouth, dripping down her chin and spilling onto the snow.

Pain and anguish coursed through the paladin."Torm! Help me!" he called to his god. For a moment, nothing happened.

With a rush, a sense of peace blossomed in him as he gave himself fully to his god, opening to the divine power in a way he had never done before. His eyes seemed to swim with a golden aura as he felt a surge of energy roar through him, filling his body with a warm tingling. After a moment, the warmth flowed to his hands, which seemed to glow with a holy golden aura. He could feel everything beneath his fingers with astounding clarity, the fabric of her cloak, the imperfections in her leathers, the cool smoothness of her skin.

With a silent urging, the power in his hands seeped into Naestra, hesitant at first, as if the divine light was fighting against some unknown darkness. Then, the barrier broke and Talomanes felt the radiant warmth flow into the assassin, could see the golden glow suffuse her body. Slowly, the light faded, leaving the paladin with a feeling of joy and wonder.

Moaning softly, Naestra stirred in his arms. Her eyelids flickered briefly and then Talomanes found himself staring into her eyes, confusion and the memory of pain clouding them briefly. The tension seemed to go out of her then as she relaxed in his arms, her eyes filling with a look of resignation.

She coughed, briefly. "I suppose you'll kill me now, or take me as your prison-" Whatever else she was going to say was lost against the paladin's lips. She tried to pull back from him for a moment, then gave up her struggle, returning his kiss passionately. He moved his lips from hers after a long moment, staring deeply into her eyes. She smiled up at him, a slight blush on her cheeks as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders, pulling him closer to her.

There, with the sun casting its first light upon the new day, the paladin smiled back at the assassin, drawing his lips to hers for another tender kiss.


Embers of Black - Chapter 8 © Patrick Braddock

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