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Embers of Black - Chapter Four

Patrick Braddock
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As the sun passed well into midday, a column of riders several hundred strong wormed its way out of Develor, bearing southeast. A breeze whistle across the frozen plains, snapping pennants and flags, no two alike. The expedition of Lord Ithad had begun its ride.

The relentless plodding of the horse sent flashes up pain lancing up and down Corenne's back with every step. She stretched again, knuckling her back to try to ease her stiff and aching muscles. First I put up with that girl kneeing me in the back all night, and now this! she thought indignantly, flashing a look of veiled contempt at Illandra.

The recipient of that stare, meanwhile, was busy studying the man who rode ahead and to her left, their erstwhile captor. He had tied back his curly white hair, the tail bobbing against the back of his leathers. Perhaps sensing her eyes on him, Ix turned, silver eyes meeting deep blue, holding them for a moment before going back to scanning the frozen plains around them.

Nudging her horse closer to his, she leaned in, whispering, "What is it?"

The silver-eyed man shook his head. "There is something about today," he responded, his gaze never ceasing its watchful roaming. "Something�it does not feel right, yes? Be wary."

Hunkering down in her cloak, Illandra puller her hood farther up. He's right, she thought. Even though it's midday, it almost feels like it should be pitch black out here. She guided her horse closer to Corenne's, intent on warning her companion to stay alert.

After a brief, worried exchange with the other woman, she heeled her horse back a back, leaning down to adjust her stirrup in case she had to ride hard. Something rustled softly against the hood of her cloak, tugging slightly, followed by a scream of pain in front of her.

Her head whipped up, catching sight of a black-fletched arrow jutting from Corenne's shoulder. "Corenne!" She kicked her horse beside her companion as other arrows rained down, finding marks in the column of riders.

An arrow flashed down, nicking her face as it buried into her horse's neck. The horse shrieked and fell, throwing Illandra from the saddle. She leaped to her feet, managing to grab Corenne's belt and hoisting herself up behind her friend, kicking the horse into a gallop.

Corenne rode clumbsily, trying to manage the reigns with her good hand, all the while clutching her wounded shoulder, blood leaking from between her fingers and staining her silk blouse, groaning from every stride the horse took.

In a flash, Ix was beside them, his own horse panting hard, his sword naked in his hand. "This way!" he shouted over the thundering of panicking horses and the screams of dying men. He turned, kicking his horse to push through the press of the column, towards a stand of rocks. Corenne gripped the reigns of her horse with her left hand, urging her mount to follow Ix's as Illandra held onto her waist, trying to keep from being jolted off the back of the horse.

As the panting mount burst from the column, Illandra got a good look at the forces that had ambushed the riders. Orcs wearing white wolf pelts to camoflauge them in the scattered snow drifts surrounded the party, loosing arrows from evil-looking bows, many tufted with feathers or dangling bones.

Her eyes were drawn to an orc to her right who seemed to see her just as she caught sight of it. Cracked black lips pulled back into an evil grin as it raised its wicked bow, black-fletched arrow nocked, drawing in one smooth motion. Sighting along the shaft, it aimed at her and Corenne, one eye closed and the other narrowing.

Out of nowhere, a great, gleaming blade slashed in, splitting bow, arrow, and orc in one fluid arc. Black blood stained the pristine snow as the creature fell in two different places.

Saying a silent prayer for her savior, a muscled warrior wearing a chain shirt and a dark cloak whipping behind him that bore the Gauntlet of Torm, Illandra rested her head against Corenne's back, closing her eyes against the cacophany of dying and combat crashing behind her.

Roaring a battle cry, Talomanes leapt aside, the orcish arrow streaking past him. His great blade lashed out, ripping through crude iron mail to tear into the beast's stomach and out its back. The orc screamed weakly as it fell behind the paladin, who had already moved onto another enemy.

Hot blood trickled down his left arm from the broken-off shaft in his shoulder, but the blood one warmed him, stoking the fires of the righteous wrath that burned in his heart. Again and again he came upon orcish archers who were unprepared for the flashing death that stalked among them, their bows turned towards the killing ground in front of them.

A group of five orcish infantry caught sight of the raging paladin, and began closing in on him. Talomanes caught sight of them as the first sent a wickedly-hooked axe arcing towards him. Deflecting the attack to his right, he moved in close, sinking the edge of his two-handed blade into the orc's gut and drawing it forward and up, spilling a heap of steaming entrails on the ground as he slit the orc open, parrying the sword of the second orc as the momentum of his movement carried his blade upward.

Swinging his gauntleted left fist, he struck the orc hard in the face, dazing it and knocking it backwards, then taking a step to his left and spinning, gripping his blade with both hands and bringing his whistling sword crashing onto the beast's spine, hacking through flesh and bone, hewing the orc in half.

Seeing the paladin down two of their comrades in a matter of moments, the remaining three spread out, trying to outflank him. The one in the middle came at him, jabbing his broadsword at the holy warrior. Deflecting the thrust, Talomanes lashed out, but the orc caught the blade on a stout wooden shield, the two-handed sword sinking into the wood and sticking for a moment, long enough for the orc to his right to howl in victory as it lunged forward, seeking to drive its short spear through his ribs.

A white-fletched arrow struck the orc square in the chest, knocking it off balance as it crunched through breastbone, lodging deeply into the beast.

Talomanes kicked the first orc in the gut, knocking it backwards. His sword came free just in time to parry the axe of the orc on his left. He pressed the beast but it caught every one of his fierce assaults, deflecting them with a skill the paladin hadn't counted on.

Looking behind Talomanes, the orc grinned evilly. It was the orc's companion that saved him as it tried to attack the paladin from behind. Talomanes easily avoided the clumsy attack from his rear, spinning in a feint at the orc which had attacked him from behind then lashing out, beheaded the skilled axeman with a backstroke. Letting the momentum of his swing carry him full circle, he lashed out again, his blade smashing the wooden shield raised against it and cutting through orcish armor and flesh, sinking deep into the creature's chest.

Kicking the corpse from his blade, the paladin turned in a slow circle, surveying the area around him. The orcs on this side of the ambush had either fled or been defeated as the column of riders began to fight back against the assault.

Planting his blade in the ground, Talomanes leaned against it, trying to catch his breath. The thudding of horses drew up behind him and he spun around, his two-handed sword raised defensively in front of him.

Naestra reigned up in front of him, her cloak tattered here and there but she looked otherwise to be in good health. "You can thank me later," she told him, gestured to an orc with her bow. His eyes caught the white fletching on the arrow that had killed it, which matched the fletching of the arrow nocked in her short bow.

"You're hurt!" Ashera exclaimed, dropping from her horse to move beside the paladin. She clutched the arrow, about to yank it out, which brought a grunt of pain from Talomanes.

"Later," he told her as he brushed away her hands. "When we've got more time. For now, let's get out of here."

Elsewhere, a dance was under way. Black flowed and shifted against black, silver flashing and the singing of metal filling the air.

Again and again the man named Ix lashed out at the black-clad orc in front of him, his keen steel blade being met with a black iron blade that the beast wielded with two hands.

"Gruumsh take you, hoo-man!" the tusked humanoid spat as it counter-attacked, pressing Ix back, making him give ground before the berserk orc.

Leaping back from a slash, the warrior miscalculated the length of the orc's swing. Black iron cut through leather and flesh, drawing a burning line of blood across Ix's stomach.

Grunting in pain, Ix double over, barely able to ward off the next two slashes. The orc raised its blade behind its head and then sent it in a downward diagonal at the silver-eyed man in a double-fisted strike. Black iron met shining steel with tremendous force, the shock stunning Ix, tearing his sword from his grasp and sending it spinning off to the side.

His foe raised its blade to strike down the wounded man in front of it but stopped, its head cocked to one side. With widened eyes, the creature turned and ran, leaving a puzzled yet thankful Ix kneeling in the snow.

With monumental effort, he got to his feet, walking over to retrieve his blade from where it had stuck in the ground. Pulling the sword free, he made his way over the dozen or so orcish corpses that littered the ground in front of the crevice that sheltered the two women.

The group had come across them quite by accident, and Ix, aided by the little magic Illandra possessed, had felled the beasts and then taken on their commander, who had been a better warrior than he had imagined.

Yet the orc, why did it flee so? Ix couldn't puzzle that out. After wiping the black orcish blood from his sword with a bit of tattered cloth torn from a humanoid's shirt, he sheathed his blade, entering the cramped passage where the two elf women hid.

Illandra had stripped off Corenne's blouse to work the arrow free and then bound the wound with strips torn from the garment. Shrugging out of his black cloak, Ix draped it over the wounded girl's shoulders.

Smiling up at him, her eyes clouded by pain, she said simply, "Thank you."

Nodding, Ix knelt before them, his ears listening for the sound of another orcish war party. "How is she?" he asked Illandra.

The raven-haired woman stroked Corenne's cheek lightly before replying. "She's fine. I cleaned the wound with water and then used snow to stop the bleeding before bandaging her. She'll need a healer for the bones in her shoulder, but other than that�" Letting the assessment trail off, she turned back to studying her friend.

Ix placed his hand on Corenne's good shoulder. "You'll be fine soon enough. The orcs, you are tougher than they, yes?" He smiled at the wounded elf maiden. Taking Illandra's hand in his, he stood, grimacing at the pain it caused in his stomach. Waving off her concerned look, he drew her to the mouth of the tunnel and spoke with her briefly. Reluctantly, she nodded, pacing back to her friend.

Kneeling beside Corenne, Illandra smiled at her. Hugging her gently, being careful not to jostle the other woman's wounded shoulder, she uttered arcane words. Corenne went slack as the magical sleep overtook her.

Walking over, Ix knelt beside the comatose girl. Helping to ease her to the ground, he said, "It is better if she is not awake if the orcs find her. They are more likely to think her dead, yes? And, if they find she is still alive�much better for her to not be awake." The raven-haired elf nodded in grim agreement.

A deep vibration filled the small space, causing the ground to tremble beneath Ix's boots. "What is that?" Illandra asked. Ix waved her to silence.

Standing, he made his way to the mouth of the tiny cave, drawing his blade as he moved. He swept his eyes over the tableau before him.

The members of the expedition had began to dig in, piling up snow and using corpses to build crude fieldworks. They seemed just as confused by the faint rumbling as was the silver-eyed man.

The vibration grew in strength, turning into a deep rumbling that caused dust and tiny rocks to cascade from the ceiling. Fearful that the stone shelter would collapse from the rumbling, crushing them inside, Ix turned, yelling for Illandra to get Corenne out of the cave. Then the shockwave hit him, hurling him onto the two elves as the world went black.

As the trembling in the ground reached a defeaning roar, Talomanes turned back to the expedition's camp, some five hundred yards distant. He felt the warmth of Ashera's body as she pressed herself to him. Naestra stood at his other side as all three together watched what happened next.

Huge rents in the ground tore open, tumbling men and horses to their death. Shards of stone dozens of feet high speared from the ground, impaling others. The snow began to ripple outward from a point a hundred feet from the camp. With a tremendous boom and a blast the trio could feel from where they were, the snow exploded outward, burying everying around the center and baring a large swath of rocky soul.

With a hideous tearing sound, something began to emerge from the exposed ground. Rocky arms pulled loose from the dirt, flexing fingers as long as a man. Bracing titanic hands against the ground, the stone horror pushed itself free, the vaguely man-shaped creature towering above the hundreds of men huddled below it. Slits in the dirt face opened, revealing eyes that blazed like molten steel. With a terrible slowness, those burning eyes focused on the men below.

A huge slash opened below the eyes, revealing a gaping maw filled with rocky teeth. The creature's chest swelled slightly as it drew in a deep breath. The scream that tore from that infernal throat knocked Talomanes and his companions to the ground, defeaning them with the sheer volume of sound.

In the ringing aftermath of that titanic blast, the beast struck. Massive hands clenched, raising above the stony head. With a motion almost too fast to be believed, those hands slammed into the middle of the camp, brutally crushing scores of men. The rest of the earthen body followed behind, burying the entire encampment under a small mountain of rubble.


Embers of Black - Chapter 4 © Patrick Braddock

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