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Embers of Black - Chapter One

Patrick Braddock
Old Vault Category: 
Old Vault ID: 

The wind came howling across the frozen plains, sounding like a beast possessed as it tore at the man's clothing, trying to rip his cloak from around his body and pierce him with its needle-thin blades of ice. Muttering to himself, the green-eyed man drew the hood of his cloak lower, hunkering down to seek a little bit more warmth from his horse as he rode. Shifting in his saddle slightly, he turned to peer at his companion.

Sitting upright in her saddle, the woman seemed little affected by the blistering cold. Her only concession was a scarf wrapped around her head, leaving only her eyes uncovered. The light brown eyes flicked across the man's and then resumed searching the tundra, keeping alert for any signs of danger.

As if any sane creature would be out in weather like this, the man thought to himself. Still, he had to admit that his companion's careful attentiveness had saved their skin more than once on the long trek from Waterdeep. He shifted in his saddle again, trying to ignore the screaming wind. The clink of mail came faintly in the air before the sound was ripped away.

Suddenly, the woman blazed into motion, rolling off her startled horse and snagging her short bow from its case hanging from the saddle. She drew an arrow from the quiver hanging beside the case, nocking it but not drawing.

"What is it?" the man asked, sliding off his own horse. He moved nearer the woman, reaching over his shoulder and drawing a massive two-handed blade from its scabbard. Holding the gleaming steel weapon in front of his with both hands, he turned his head, eyes and ears trying to pick up whatever it was that had alerted his companion.

For a long moment, the woman was silent, her eyes scanning the area. In a flash, she had her bow up and loosed an arrow straight into the wind. The man tracked its flight and saw it lodge in an oddly-shaped snowdrift.

All at once, it seemed the snow erupted around the two. The snowdrift the woman had hit sprang up, catching her second arrow and tumbling back to the frozen ground, its shriek carrying even over the roar of the wind. The man got a glimpse of a pale blue emaciated body, overlarge limbs, and a pair of squat wings. His eyes widened.

"Ice mephits!" the woman hissed, naming the demons that were closing in on them.

The man smile with grim humor. "It must mean we're getting close, then," he roared over the gale. He hefted his blade, turning in a full circle to survey the fiends closing in. "Torm guide me true!" he yelled to the heavens, his blade swinging down to meet the closest ice mephit.

As five feet of steel clove through the first creatue, the woman leaped into motion, dropping her short bow and drawing a pair of long knives from her belt. She rolled away from one mephit, its claws raking at her. She recovered quickly, lunging forward and gutting the creature with her left knife, her right flicking out to open up another imp's throat, sending it over backwards with a strangled gurgle.

With one flank opened up, the two took the opening, darting through the hole in the trap so that the rest of the ice mephits were coming at them from the front instead of having them surrounded.

With another roar to Torm, God of Duty, the man charged the imps, his blade cleaving in a mighty arc that split two of the beasts in half before lodging in the ribs of a third.

Following at his heels, the woman dove between two of the mephits, her blades striking back and down, each one finding a kidney. She jerked the knives loose, turning to the last two demons.

Having seen their fellows dispatched so easily, the two remaining fiends turned to run. One got five strides before a dagger found its back, the other got eight.

Stropping the icy blue fiend blood from his massive blade with a scrap of fabric, the man stepped beside the woman, leaning down so she could hear him. "Nice dagger work, there."

The corners of the woman's eyes crinkled, whether from a smile or a scowl, he couldn't tell. "Yes," she replied, walking over to retrieve her daggers from the dead imps. Grumbling, the man sheathed his blade, pulling his cloak tight around his as the wind, forgotten in the heat of battle, seemed to redouble its efforts to freeze him solid where he stood.

The woman brushed past him on her way back to the horses. For just a moment, the smell of lavender soap came to him on the wind. Where did she find time to bathe in the last weeks? the man wondered. Shrugging, he turned and strode back to his horse, but the woman stopped him from mounting.

"This way. I saw someplace we can stay tonight. We won't make it before nightfall, and there may be more mephits out here�or worse." She held his gaze a moment before turning and leading her mare in a path perpendicular to the one they had been taking all day. Scanning the area one last time, the man stifled a yawn. The cold was making him sleepy and he did indeed want to get in before it got dark.

Taking the reins of his bay, he followed the woman's black mare, trying to fill his mind with prayers to Torm as he tried not to watch the sway of the woman's hips as she walked ahead of him.

The shelter was a lean-to that had been built up against a large mound of rock. The space it provided was easily large enough for the both of them and their horses, though it was a bit cozy.

The man spread his horse blanket on the ground, near the small fire they had built from a store of branches they had found in the back. It seemed as though the shelter was used quite often, though it hadn't seen use in the past year or two from what he would see. He dropped his saddle down, using it as a pillow as he stretch out, trying to get comfortable in his mail shirt as he waited for the fire to warm his chilled body. Stripping off his heavy leather gloves and tucking them behind his belt, he stretch his hands out towards the fire. Slowly, feeling began to return to his numbed fingertips.

Across the fire from him, the woman sat cross-legged on her own saddle blanket, unwinding the cloth from her head. Rich brown hair spilled over her shoulders, framing her angular face. Her eyes brushed his as she reached into her belt pouch, pulling out a small strap of leather to tie her hair back. "Food?" she asked.

Rolling over, the man opened his saddlebags, drawing out his last skin of water and a package of oiled paper. He tossed the icy water to the woman as he unfolded the paper, drawing out a length of hard sausage and a bit of cheese. Sighing, he tossed the empty package onto the fire, causing a billowing black cloud of smoke to waft up through the hole in the ceiling as the paper burned.

"This is the last of it." He handed the cheese to her. Drawing a heavy dagger from his belt, he cut the sausage in half, giving her the larger portion. If she noticed his smaller portion or the fact that he gave her all the cheese, she made no comment as she wolfed her food down like a half-starved jackal.

Frowning slightly at the woman, he ate his bit of sausage slowly, savoring it. If they were right and their destination was only a few hours' ride, they would be eating well tomorrow night. If not�

He stared at the gnawed hunk of meat in his hand. If not, this may be the last bit of anything I ever eat again. Grunting to himself, the man finished off the end of sausage. He caught the woman's eyes and nodded slightly as he rolled over to sleep, letting her deal with taking the first watch. That'll show her for not even giving thanks for her meal. The simple selfishness brought a short pang of guilt. He quickly said a prayer of forgiveness to Torm, hoping his god hadn't been slighted by his actions. When no ravening horde of plague-bearing rodents appeared out of thin air to gnaw on his toes, he relaxed.

With one final thought of their destination and the fire filling his body with a pleasant warmth, the man drifted off into slumber.

Sometime later, the man awoke. The light from the fire against the back wall of the shelter was quite a bit dimmer, showing that he had been asleep for a few hours. He was about to sit up and relieve his companion when he heard a soft sound, the whisper of wool on leather. The faint smell of lavender came to him.

He rolled over, facing the fire, his mail clinking lightly as he moved. The sound stopped. Keeping his eyes closed, he waited for it to return, thinking he was caught between the waking world and the dream world. After a few moments, the noise resumed. Opening one eye, he looked across the fire from him.

The woman was sitting with her back to him, clad in only a simple linen shift. She seemed to be running a piece of fabric over her leathers and clothing. Ah! the man thought. That's why she always smells like lavender�she rubs her clothes down every night.

He shifted slightly, his mail making a faint noise. Holding his breath, the man waited. But this time, the woman didn't cease her work.

"Is it time for your watch?" she asked without looking up, catching him completely offguard.

"Ah, y-y-yes," he stammered. There was a soft sound that almost reminded him of a chuckle.

The woman finished up her task and set her things aside, laying on her back beside the fire. Folding her hands behind her head, she stretch, arching her back up from the blanket. The man's eyes popped wide before he shifted his gaze from either her breasts straining against the fabric of her shift or where the hem of the garment rode up her thighs. The fire seemed a safe bet.

After a moment, he sensed her move again and he raised his eyes from the fitfully flickering flames, trying to blink away the spots that swam in front of his eyes. When his vision finally cleared, he saw the woman was staring him in the eyes, a faint smile on her lips.

"You shouldn't stare into the fire like that. Next, I will have to remind you not to watch the sun through a spyglass, either." There was just a touch of amusement in her silky voice.

The man blushed deeply, hoping she wouldn't notice with his windburned skin or the dim light of the fire. "It is not proper for a man to stare," he stated, trying to hold onto a shred of his dignity.

There was an amused snort from across the fire. "No one can tell you at what you can or cannot look, only yourself, paladin." With that, the woman rolled over, the chill in the air seeming not to bother her as she fell asleep, her back to the fire.

Sighing softly, the man moved into a kneeling position. He quietly uttered a prayer to Torm to watch over the woman's sleep and to help him watch over her during the night. With that finished, he stood, moving his way to the rock wall, where he could stand fully and stretch. He pushed his fists into the small of his back as he strained, trying to work out the kinks he had gotten from sleeping in his armor.

As he stood there, he studied the stone. It looked to even to be natural, and, as he looked closer, he caught sight of faint markings on the wall. Leaning in close, he furrowed his brow, studying the markings more fully.

Tracing one blocky rune with his finger, the man let loose a soft whistle. Dwarven, it looks like. And very, very old. He knew there hadn't been dwarves up here, near the glacier, in hundreds or even thousands of years. Something from the older times�

Tracing the lines of the runic script, he saw that they seemed to outline a rectangle in the stone, almost like a door. Except, try as he might, he could find no joining, no edge, no crack that would tell of a hidden doorway. Giving a mental shrug, he turned away from the wall.

Catching sight of the woman stretched out beside the dying fire, clad in only her shift, the man bent down, picking up his blanket. He carefully edged around the fire, draping the heavy wool over her as she slumbered. She shifted slightly, coming partially awake. Turning slightly, she looked up at him, her face relaxed into a sincere and thankful smile before sleep took her again.

You have a knack for picking odd companions, old boy, he told himself. Which wasn't exactly true, since it was she who had originally approached him and insisted to come with him as he was preparing to leave the Temple of Torm in Waterdeep. Why anyone would want to go to Reghed Glacier was beyond him. He was being sent to look into rumors of gathering evil. She�he didn't know. She was a puzzle that he could not figure out. Distant, aloof, and quiet. The smile that night was the first true smile he had seen from her in the weeks they had journeyed.

She had rolled onto her back again, enabling the man to study her profile. She's young, the man thought to himself. Twenty-two or twenty-three winters. Which put her about his own age.

The light from the floundering fire softened the angles of her face, making her otherwise cold and distant features warm and inviting. She is beautiful, he thought to himself, mentally tracing the bridge of her thin nose with a fingertip.

He reached up, his fingers brushing his stubbled chin. And what a sight I must be.Chuckling softly, he drew up a mental picture of himself, his fine features and normal light coloring at odds with the harsh red of the windburn and the three days' worth of stubble.

Running his fingers through his shoulder-length brown hair, he settled back against his saddle, humming quietly as he let his mind drift, waiting for the coming of dawn so they could resume their trek.

The wind was gone when they set out the next morning leaving a frozen silence that seemed as if any sound would case it to shatter. Breathing a prayer of thanks, the man stifled a yawn behind his gloves fist, still a bit groggy from the hour nap he had snatched after the woman had awakened and began preparing her things.

He stepped into the stirrup, throwing a leg over his horse. He slipped as he muscles didn't work quite as they should, barely managing to keep from plunging over the other side of the horse and onto the frozen ground below.

"You should pay more attention and sleep less," the woman chided as she rode past him, the scarf wound once more around her head. Grumbling, the man kicked his bay to follow her mare, letting her lead.

She pulled a map from her saddlebag, spreading it in front of her and making a mark with a piece of charcoal. "This is where we are now." She traced her fingertip an inch or so to the northeast. "And this is Develor. We should be there by noon."

Develor�It seemed to be ages ago that he had left Waterdeep for this icy hell, travelling across plains and swamps, through forests and mountains. And now he was almost there. He couldn't contain a grin of eagerness for the path ahead, trying to ignore the voice in the back of his head that kept reminded him that so far, all he had done was managed to get where he was supposed to go, nevermind his task and the return trip.

With spirits high, he rode behind the woman, whistling an old marching tune as his horse plodded across the tundra.


Embers of Black - Chapter 1 © Patrick Braddock

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