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Embers of Black - Chapter Nine

Patrick Braddock
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The kiss seemed to stretch on for an eternity before Naestra finally moved her lips from his. Touching the tear that trailed down Talomanes' cheek, she whispered, "Why?"

The paladin chuckled softly. "Well, I couldn't let you die on me after we've come so far together."

"But�" Her head turned slightly, her eyes falling one of her long knives. "I don't understand."

Slipping a hand down the neck of his mail shirt, he pulled out a thin disc that was bound on a soft leather thong around his neck. Onto the front of the disc was carved the image of a gauntlet, the symbol of Torm.

"Loyalty to those who journey with me, duty to see they come to no harm while in my care," he said gently. Lifting the holy symbol over his head, he set it in the assassin's hands, closing her fingers around it.

Naestra was speechless, turning her eyes from the circle of steel in her hands to the paladin's face and back again. Finally, her lips curved in a slight smile as she sat up, moving out of his arms. "Come on," she said softly. "We wouldn't want the others to worry." She slipped the thong around her neck and tucked the holy symbol under her leathers, then bent to retrieve her knives, slipping them back into their sheaths.

After helping the still-shaky woman to her feet, Talomanes walked over to the dead orcs, bending down to inspect the bodies. The assassin joined him, both of them searching the corpses for anything that might give them a clue as to whom their enemy was. Most orcs carried some badge that identified their clan, but these four seemed to be all from different clans. The only common thread that linked all of them was that each of them carried a small coin-like marker of silver, engraved with a horned skull on one side and a pair of crossed maces on the other.

Talomanes collected the four markers, dropping them into his belt pouch for safekeeping. As he straightened, he stepped close to Naestra, slipping an arm around her waist to steady her. Smiling at her, he pressed his fingertips first to his lips and then to hers. Returning his smile, she squeezed his arm. Then, together, they made their way back to the entrance to the lean-to, neither one of them sensing the pair of malevolent eyes that watched them from afar, having been stirred by their touch upon the markers.

Talomanes held the curtain open for Naestra, his eyes sweeping the inside of the shelter. Ashera was talking to both the elven women, the raven-haired one who had been wounded the night before looking rather more healthy. His eyes found the white-haired man, noting that though his eyes were open, he still lay stretch out on the ground, following the conversation going on without adding to it. His eyes, the color of burnished silver, touched the paladin briefly before going back to the three women talking around the fire.

As a blast of cold air announced Naestra's arrival, Ashera turned, her expression concerned. "What happened?" she asked softly. Blushing slightly, he answered, "An orcish scouting party. Naestra heard them and I followed her out. We got all of them, though, so I don't think we have much to worry about for now. Soon, though, their leader is going to wonder what happened and send another patrol, so we'd better get ready to head out." Ashera and the brown-haired elf maiden nodded while the raven-haired woman looked a bit confused, pain still tightening her features slightly. The three of them set about gathering up their belongings. The pale man rose to his feet, approaching Talomanes.

"You are Talomanes, yes?" he asked, his voice oddly accented. The paladin nodded. "Your�friend�was telling us about you, yes. And this one, as well." He gestured at Naestra. "Myself, I am Ixdaeliovadi Insudramata. Or Ix, if you prefer," he added with a slight smile. "These are my companions. Corenne," he gestured to the brown-haired woman, "and Illandra." This was to the one wearing the elegant black riding dress.

"Well met, Ix." Talomanes clasped the man's mailed forearm in a warrior's greeting. "As you know, I'm Talomanes Indurian, Paladin of Torm. This is Naestra, my companion and an excellent shot with a bow." The silver-eyed man nodded to the assassin, who returned his nod.

The paladin ran his eyes over the group, nothing that Ashera and the two elves were readied, watching him. "Alright," he said, taking charge of the group. "Let's head back to Develor. Once we get there, we'll see what everyone wants to do and go from there." He turned his eyes to each in turn, finally turning around to gaze at Naestra for a moment. Smiling at her, he winked, then ducked out the curtain.

The assassin followed a few moments later, adjusting her quiver and short bow, both of which were slung over her shoulder. On her heels came the black-armored Ix, his hand resting on the ruby-capped longsword he wore at his hip. Corenne and Illandra, the elves talking quietly in their own language, emerged next, with Ashera bringing up the rear.

Remember the way he had set out only a couple days before, the paladin took the lead, keen-eyed Naestra falling in beside him. Her hair just long enough for a ponytail, she had tied it back with a strip of rawhide, holding it out of her eyes so she could keep a keen watch out for enemies.

As they walked, the paladin and the assassin side by side, the other four following behind, Talomanes noticed that Naestra's soft brown eyes kept flicking his way. She even turned her head slightly once or twice to study him while she thought his attention was focused elsewhere. Why does she keep doing that? he wondered silent, then caught himself, as he was doing much the same to her. That kiss�Was it just something from the heat of the moment? Two companions who had come so far together and needed an affirmation of life after a brush with death? Or�? He didn't know. She probably didn't know, either, and that gave him some measure of comfort.

This first couple of hours of their journey left Talomanes with a building sense of menace, as if something was watching them with a dark purpose. He saw that his companions noticed it, too, as more than one clutched a hilt tightly or firmed their mouth in a grim expression. As they drew closer to Develor, the feeling only grew stronger.


The first attack came around noon, a patrol of a dozen heavily-armed orcs wearing glittering steel hauberks and wielding black iron swords and leather-bound wooden shields.

Shrieking like a falcon, the man named Ix rushed headlong at the humanoids, his shining steel blade held firm, seemingly eager for black orcish blood.

Talomanes followed the warrior, more cautiously both to protect the silver-eyed man's rear and to point out one of the orcs to the assassin. It had held back from the others, its mail hauberk covered by a black shirt bearing the unblinking eye of Gruumsh. In a gutteral voice, it began to chant, raising its arms to the heavens as it called upon the unholy might of the Orc God.

A white-fletched arrow shot in, catching the shaman in the shoulder and throwing off the spell it had been invoking.. After that, Talomanes lost track of the orcish priest, as he and Ix were swept up into a melee with the warriors.

Two-handed sword lashed out to be turned by stout shield. Black iron slashed in to meet nothing by air. The orc lost its balance, stumbling forward and into the paladin's second stroke, slicing diagonally down where neck met shoulder and shearing through mail, felling the beast.

Meanwhile, Ix faced off against two of the humanoids, his keen elvish blade keeping both his opponents back. Dipping, he scooped up a handful of snow, clenching it into a ball and heaving it at one orc, who flinched away from the missile, dropping his guard slightly as the human warrior let the momentum of his throw carry him in a full circle, his blade leaping out to cleave the humanoid's head from its shoulders. As the corpse was falling he struck again, thrusting at the other orc. His blow was met by the creature's shield, so Ix shifted his attack, stepping in close as he deflected his foe's counterstrike. He smashed the ruby-capped pommel of his blade into the orc's face, bringing his knee up into the beast's gut, doubling it over as it tried to catch its breath. Taking a step back, the silver-eyed man brought his blade arcing down, beheading the orc in one swift move.

The paladin kicked the writhing body of the humanoid he had just speared with his two-handed blade, sending it sprawing as he turned to see three orcs charging him at once. Two glowing darts of energy, one blue and one pink, each struck a target, sending them reeling, howling in pain. As the third beast paused, confused, Talomanes stepped forward, his sword cleaving an arc that split mail, flesh, and breastbone, sending the orc tumbling over backwards as a fountain of black blood stained the snow. With two quick strokes, he finished the orcs that had been hit by the pulses of magic.

Panting slightly in the cold air, his breath wisping in front of him, the paladin surveyed the area. Ix was just finishing up his own opponent, the corpses of the two he had already killing sprawled behind him. Two more lay before the women, felled by Ashera's mace and Naestra's knives. Two more orcs had white-fletched arrows sticking from them, one of which was the priest. With the five the paladin had killed, two with the aid of the elves, that accounted for the whole lot.

Nodding to himself in satisfaction, Talomanes turned to join his companions when a shout from Ashera caused him to spin about, his blade held at the ready.

An elongated circle of some black, glistening substance sprang into being fifty yards behind Talomanes, growing rapidly. Soon, it was taller than the paladin by a good foot. For a long moment, nothing happened. Then the surface rippled like oil as a twistied, fiendish creature emerged. It may had once been a man, but the great tear in its stomach and the gray, corpselike pallor of its skin marked it as being undead. As it shambled forward, more and more walked corpses emerged from the shimmering portal, until more than a score of the bloated, rotting undead milled about.

A moment later, the portal disgorged a mass of skeletons, wielding ancient weapons, some still covered with tattered and rusted bits of armor. Foul shadowy creatures also spilled forth, black as night with burning red eyes dancing with dark desire.

The wraiths took up a keening wail as a vicious cry tore from the ranks of the other undead, voiced by spirits consigned to an unlife of eternal damnation. The mass began to move towards the companions, intent on drawing all life from their bodies. Behind the horde of undead, the portal flickered and vanished.

Talomanes backed up until he felt the warmth of Naestra's body behind him. "Take the others and go," he said over his shoulder.


"Ix!" the paladin bellowed. "Take the women and get them out of here. Circle around and head to Develor. Go! Do it!" He held the silver-eyed man's gaze for a moment, then the other man nodded.

A faint touch on the back of his neck was followed by Naestra's voice whispering in his ear, "Come back to us." With that, she was gone. Turning, the paladin caught Ashera looking after the assassin, then turned her eyes back to him, her face blank. Ix went last, his blade still in his hand. He gave the paladin one last, grim nod before turning and joining the others in a quick jog.

Turning back to face the oncoming horde, his gleaming two-handed sword held at the ready, Talomanes pushed everything out of his mind save for the image of Naestra, cradled in his arms, her eyes closed as she lay so near death. Then that was pushed aside by the feeling of her lips on his, the smell of her as he kissed her.

A bleak smile on his face, the paladin raised his blade high. "Torm!" he cried. "Guide my blade true on this, my dying day!" With a wordless roar, he charged forward, he blade trailing behind him. As he closed with the undead, his mighty blade swept out, cleaving a shining arc through rotting bone and decaying flesh.

Again and again the Paladin of Torm roared, sometimes in triumph and sometimes in pain, his blade flashing in the light of the sun.


Embers of Black - Chapter 9 © Patrick Braddock

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