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Embers of Black - Chapter Five

Patrick Braddock
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Cold and dark pervaded everything. Each movement brought agonizing pain in a stomach that felt strangely warm. Probing fingers came away hot and sticky, sending shooting pains up and down a body that felt battered beyond belief. Rocks dug into skin from above as well as below.

"Ix!" someone nearby hissed. "Wake up! I think Illandra's dying!"

Ix? Blind eyes blinked rapidly, trying to clear away the fog from a mind that had gone numb long before the body. Ix�yes. I am Ix. Grunt from exertion and pain, Ix pushed a slab of stone from his chest. Bracing his hands against the rubble burying the rest of him, he pushed hard, slowly and painfully pulling his legs free. A small cascade of rocks and pebbles tumbled down, the whole cave groaning ominously.

A slim hand grasped his. "Ix! Illandra�help her�" The voice in the darkness was little more than a pleading whisper.

"I cannot see," he whispered back. The hand holding his guided his own hand to a face that was colder than it should be. Moving his fingertips to her neck, he felt for a pulse. After several long moments, he said quietly, "She is dying. I think the rockfall, it broke something inside of her."

A plaintive wail met his grim statement, Corenne reaching out and embracing him fiercely. "Don't let her die, Ix! You have to save her!"

Numbed mind thawing slowly, Ix reached into his belt pouch. Shard of broken glass from broken vials cut his fingers, but he finally found one vial that was intact. Pulling it from his hip pouch, he unstoppered it, smelling to make sure it was what he wanted. Satisfied with the vaguely cinnamon-like scent, he shifted slightly, pillowing Illandra's head in his lap.

Being careful to spill as little as he could in the absolute darkness, he placed the vial against Illandra's lips, upending it and pouring the healing potion into the elf woman's mouth. He massaged her throat, getting her to swallow the liquid.

Something rustled in the darkness beside him and he felt Corenne's left shoulder brush his right. "What did you give her?"

Grunting slightly, the silver-eyed man replied, "A healing solution. The last. It will not mend what is broken, but it should keep her alive a while."

"That's it? We've got to find a way out of here, then!" Soft thumping said that she was trying to bash her way through the rock walls. "I would stop that unless you wish to bring the whole thing down on all of us and kill us all, yes?" His fingers found her wrist, holding it tightly. He was about to say something further when he noticed that something was glowing on the far wall. "What is that?" he asked, pointing.

Corenne's elven eyes had no trouble following the line of his finger. A rustle and the blue light disappearing from his view told Ix that she had moved in close to study it, blocking his view.

"It looks like some kind of writing�now that I know what to look for, there's a line of runes here�and here�and here�." She paused for a moment. "It almost looks like a doorway. I wonder what happens if-"

Trying to act before it was too late, Ix called out, "No! Touch nothing!" But it was too late.

"Oops." Corenne's fingers brush the glowing rune. Nothing seemed to happen except that the rune winked out. "This is odd."

Ix's eyes caught sight of another wan flicker of light. "There, to your left," he whispered. Touching the second rune caused it to dim and a third to glow. Touching the third ignited a fourth�

As Corenne touched the fourth, it flickered out, but no other runes came to life. "Odd, indeed," she remarked. "I wonder�Hey!" The last came through as nearly a shout, ringing in Ix's ears as it caused dust to rain from the ceiling.

"Would you be quiet!" he hissed at her.

"Sorry," she apologized. "It's just�here, help me lift Illandra." Together, the two of them got the unconscious elf woman between then, easing her towards the wall.

"Look," Corenne said. Ix had no idea what she did as nothing seemed to happen. His expression must have said as much. "Ah, the wall looks solid, but�" Again there was nothing. "Well, I guess you can't see it. Come on, take a step forward. Keep up with me. There you are."

Ix felt himself pass through something as he walked, felt something slithering through him as well, and then he was clear, blinking his eyes in the sudden light.

A pale glow suffused the air, dim as twilight but bright as noon to his dark-blinded eyes. He standing at the far wall of a massive cavern, the size of the space impossible to determine in the gloomy illumination. In front of him there was a raised dais with columns along the edges. As he and Corenne staggered towards it, Illandra draped between them, he saw that the dais looked to be some kind of temple and was roughly a hundred feet to a side.

They reached the temple, laying Illandra on the raised stone floor. Closer up, Ix saw a rectangular pool stretching lengthwise through the middle of the temple. Leaving Corenne with the other woman, he approached the pool cautiously, alert for any danger and wishing he had his sword with him. You served me well, he thought, bidding a silent farewell the blade he had carried for so long, which would probably rust away under a pile of rock.

The pool was pilled with crystal clear water. As he peered over the edge, Ix saw that the bottom glowed slightly. Cupping a hand and dipping it into the pool, he brought a handful of water to his lips. It was clean, cool, and left him feeling invigorated. Wondering if the pool had magical healing abilities, he cupped both his hands, filling them with water and slowly making his way to the two girls, trying to keep from spilling too much. He knelt beside the stricken elf maiden, and, with Corenne's help, got her to drink the remaining water.

He stood again. "Keep giving her more water whenever you think she will drink. It seems to be quite good, yes? Myself, I will take a better look at this place." His silver eyes held Corenne's brown for a long moment, then he turned on his heel and stalked away.

The temple seemed to have been hewn from the granite of the cavern. Try as hard as he might, Ix could find no joinings, to cracks, no mark on the stone to tell who or what had created it. It is as if this entire place was formed through magic.

The nature of the temple itself was somewhat mysterious, as it was completely empty aside from the pool. There was no symbol to one deity or another, no raised platform for a priest to exhort to his following, nothing. Perhaps it was not finished?

Trailing a hand along one of the smooth columns, Ix was struck by something he hadn't noticed before. This cavern is too large to be simply through that doorway! It must have been a gate to somewhere else� Turning back and heading the way they had come, he thought, But where? Where are we?

Reaching the area they had arrived from, he spotted the runes outlining the door. Pushing against the rock in the doorway itself proved that it was solid once more. Very odd, as Corenne would say, he thought to himself. Walked a few paces to his right, he saw another door outlined. And another.

As he walked along the wall, he saw that there were too many doorways to count. There must be hundreds of gateways here! Or thousands! And they all lead somewhere� His mind flooded with questions. Did they all lead to somewhere near Develor? Did they all lead to somewhere on Faerun? Or even to Toril? Where did each lead?

Turning his attention from the wall, Ix studied the rest of the cavern. The walls that met the smooth wall that held the gateways were both rough, natural cave walls, stretch off into the darkness. Perhaps there is another wall of gateways over there, as well, he thought wonderingly to himself.

As he was staring into the darkness across the temple from him, his eyes picked up a faint glimmer of light. Curiosity won out over caution as he began to slowly make his way toward that pinpoint of light.

Creeping through the oppressive gloom, the scuffing of his boots on the stone floor seemed to thunder in the silence. He drew nearer the source of the light. As he got closer, he saw that it was coming from a round orb the size of his fist. Around the orb was wrapped a skeletal hand.

Jerking back when he spotted the skeleton, Ix turned his eyes left and right. To his horror, he saw he was surrounded by dessicated corpses and ancient bones. Turned, he saw that he had been creeping through the open graveyard without realizing it. A skull stared mockingly up at him nearly from under his feet!

Calming himself, the silver-eyed man focused, drawing his attention back to the orb. It seemed to be a simple sphere, probably of glass, that had been enchanted to shine with a permanent light. Taking a deep breath, he readied himself in case the orb was a trap, then bent down, tearing the object from its skeletal cradle.

Nothing happened.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Ix studied his find. It did indeed seem to be a smooth glass sphere, cool to the touch. A soft, even radiance spilling out of it.

Switching the orb to his left hand, he knelt down, rooting through the skeletons to find some kind of weapon. He spotted a fine sword clutched in the hand of a long-dead warrior. Smiling to himself, he reached down, his fingers brushing the hilt as he prepared to take it from the skeletal hand holding it.

The orb flashed with sudden heat in his hand, nearly causing Ix to drop it.

Muttering to himself, he grabbed the hilt of the longsword, standing and drawing the blade upward with him, waiting for the bony hand to fall back.

It didn't.

With a sinister slowness, the skeleton rose up to stand firmly, facing Ix. All around him he heard clattering and shifting as more of the dead began to move.

Clenching the light orb in his left hand, he lashed out, smashing it into the skeleton's skull, shattering orb and skull both. Jerking the longsword free from the corpse as it fell, he turned, lashing out and cutting down another skeleton that had risen fully. As he broke into a run, empty sockets followed him and bony feet began shuffling towards him. All around him, scores of the dead had come hauntingly back to life, menacing him with gnarled claws and ancient weapons. His newfound blade licked out to his left and right, slashing any undead that ventured too close as he fled towards the temple.

"Corenne! To arms!" he yelled, his voice ringing in the cavern, echoing and coming back and again and again.

He reached the edge of the temple and spun, his eyes taking in the coming horde of skeletons. Though the closest was still a good fifty feet from him, he was awed by the sheer number of them. There must be thousands of them�Stretching off into the darkness, twitching figures of bone milled towards him aimlessly.

From uncounted gaping mouths a howling battle cry rang out as the skeletons shifted, turning from clumsy constructs into a shadow of their former selves, gaining a grace they hadn't possessed before. Ix was no longer facing a horde of shambling bones but an army of undead killers.

Holding his sword before him in both hands, the man named Ixdaeliovadi breathed a prayer to Tempus, God of War, that he might die in combat instead of becoming one of the unliving he now faced.

With a feral scream, he leapt at the onrushing mass of skeletal warriors, spinning and slashing, his blade biting through bone and rotted leather. He twisted, dodged, parried, and rolled, fighting like a man possessed. He drew strength from both his Clan battle cries and the knowledge that he was going to die. With nothing to lose, he pressed himself harder than he ever had before.

Better to die a warrior than live as one of these! The thought skittered across his consciousness before disappearing in the red haze that seemed to cloud his vision.

He lashed out, cutting a skeleton in half, his swing carrying him forward as he swept his left foot behind him in an arcing kick, sending another crashing to the ground. Again and again his blade flickered, cutting through bone, sending weapon arms and skulls careening through the air.

But as he fought, more and more ancient weapons began to find their mark. A blackened axe tore a line of fire across his back. A rusted mace smacked him in the side, cracking ribs. A wickedly-barbed dagger sank into his left arm above his elbow, lodging in bone.

The blood flowing over him seemed to drive the skeletons into a frenzy, causing them to get more careless. A leap backwards and a flail flashed through where he had been, crashing into another skeleton and sending it spinning across the floor. A deflected axe stroke split the skull of a skeleton, who lashed out in its second death, burying its spear in the ribs of still another skeleton.

Risking a look over his shoulder, Ix saw that the undead horrors were concentrating on him with single-minded intensity, ignoring the two wounded elf maidens.

Slash and parry, feint and dodge. Each flash of his blade left either a wounded skeleton twitching feebly or one lashing about in the throes of its second death. With grim determination, he worked his way through the undead army, his longsword warding a circle of deadly steel around him.

Without warning, a powerful blow smashed into his back, sending Ix sprawling forward, tumbling and rolling, crashing into a handful of skeletons. Pain blossomed in his right shoulder as he tried to stand, nearly causing him to lose consciousness. The red haze of his berserker fury was gone, replaced by an encompassing darkness that threatened to swallow him.

Slowly, with every motion bringing new levels of agony, he got to his feet, turning to face the foe that had felled him. Towering above the skeletons at its feet stood the massive form of a giant's skeleton, hefting a monstrous club the size of a stout oak sapling. A fiendish red glow shone from the eye sockets of the brutish skull.

Without thinking, the silver-eyed man did the only thing he could. He turned and ran into the darkness that engulfed the far end of the cavern.


Embers of Black - Chapter 5 © Patrick Braddock

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