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Embers of Black - Chapter Seven

Patrick Braddock
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The dim light that suffused the air didn't do much to help the silver-eyed man see in the dark tunnel he found himself in. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw that the skeletons were still milling about at the entrance to the passageway, prevented by some force from entering.

Slowly, the man named Ix made his way deeper into the corridor, leaning heavily on the longsword he held in his left hand. His right arm dangled at his side, every little movement bringing shooting pain throughout his whole body. Still he pressed on, knowing that to turn back was to face the undead hordes that hungered for his blood.

I have left them enough of my blood as it is, he thought to himself. Warm liquid still dripped down his left arm from the wound the dagger had made as he had pulled it loose. After divesting himself of his leathers, he had torn his shirt apart, using the strips to bind his arm, his stomach, and his back as best he could.

With the way behind him blocked, he could only go forward, towards wherever the hewn stone tunnel led.

As he crept through the murky gloom, he spotted a light ahead. Picking up his pace, Ix saw that the passageway turned to the right. Light was spilling around the bend ahead.

As stealthily as he could, the he edged neared the corner, pressing himself against the wall. A quick glance around the edge revealed a small chamber a score of paces down the hall from the bend. The room was well lighted, revealed what seemed to be a chest on a raised pedestal.

Slipping around the corner, Ix made his way to the room cautiously, wary of any traps or hidden dangers. As he neared the chamber, he saw that it was roughly squarish, lit by flames from four braziers places in the corners of the room. His wonderment at the flames fell away as his eyes came to rest upon the chest seated on the pedestal.

Wrought from what appeared to be solid silver, it was engraved with images of men and women in various states of suffering and torment. Demons cavorted among the people, laying into the tortured souls with whips and clubs, delighting in the pain and misery they were causing.

Wresting his eyes from the horrific nature of the chest, Ix spied a banner on the wall above the pedestal. A horned crimson skull was emblazoned on a field of deepest black. Eldritch sigils circled the skull, written in a language that the silver-eyed man had never seen before.

Hesitantly, he approached the chest. It was bigger that it had first seemed, nearly four feet long and half as wide and it was as tall as it was wide. A quick inspection showed no sign of any traps or wards on the box. Another brief search turned up the switch that Ix thought should open here.

Getting a hold on his fear, Ix thought, If I turn back, I have to face those skeletal monsters. This chest, it may hold something I can use against them, yes. Setting his blade on the pedestal in front of the chest, he held his breath. Reaching out with his left hand, he pressed the catch, causing a slight click within the chest. The lid lifted a bit and then slowly swung upright.

Peering inside the box, the silver-eyed man felt his throat catch.

At the top lay a scabbarded longsword. The scabbard was made from solid silver, panels of onyx with silver settings running down the sides. The guard was simple yet elegant, the handle wrapped in a reddish leather. A small ruby capped the pommel. For a moment, Ix almost thought he saw something flicker in the crimson depths of the gem. It is probably just the firelight, yes, he thought, casting a glance at the braziers.

Reaching in, he lifted the sheathed sword out, setting it crosswise on top of the chest. He pulled a hand's length of the blade free from scabbard, noting the exquisite craftsmanship. The silvery steel bespoke elven forging, as did the line of flowing glyphs down the center of the blade.

Seating the sword back in its scabbard, he slipped it through his belt, bending back over the chest to peer inside once more.

Inside lay a folded cloth, the color of fresh blood. Gingerly, he lifted it from the chest and shook it out. It was a cloak, made of a type of woven mesh Ix had never seen before. Some parts of it seemed to reflect the flickering light of the braziers while other parts absorbed it. Along the hem were vivid black sigils, stitched of the same kind of mesh of which the cloak was made. In the middle of the back of the cloak was a single symbol, one the silver-eyed man recognized as being the elvish mark for death.

"It is a good thing I am not one for superstitions, yes?" Ix murmured softly as he set the cloak aside. Still, he shivered slightly, as the cloak seemed to exude an aura of grim malevolence.

Under the cloak lay a set of blackened armor. As his fingers brushed the black steel of the armor, he felt a tingle in his fingertips, telling him that there was heavy magic wrapped into the mail.

Ignoring the burning agony in his shoulder and back, Ix slipped into the mail shirt. The blackened mail was surprisingly light and it seemed to draw some of the pain from his shoulder, letting him stand a bit straighter.

Beneath the mail shirt lay armor plates to match the mail and a set of black steel gauntlets. He finished donning the armor, affixing blackened steel plates to his shoulders, forearms, thighs, and shins. The mail shirt itself reached to mid-thigh.

With his armor secured, he reached for the gauntlets. They were of a designed identical to the mail, suggested they'd been forged as a set. He slipped them onto his hands and marveled at how they seemed to have been tooled just for him. Flexing his fingers, he watched the flow of the overlapping plates and nodded, satisfied with their fit.

Lastly, Ix draped the flowing cloak from his shoulders. As the woven mesh settled around his shoulder, a bolt of pain and agony suffused his being, shattering his consciousness. The last thing his eyes saw was the skull on the banner. It seemed to be laughing at him.

For a long time, there was nothing. A great void of darkness that was all-encompassing. Worlds turned endlessly, ground to dust beneath the ceaseless turning of the seasons.

After an endless epoch, all the worlds had been crushed into dust, scattered onto the blackness of eternity to form a soft blanket of stars. Briefly, one of the stars shone brighter. Again it pulsed. It began beating with a slow, steady rhythm.

Like a heart�

The star began to grow, only it wasn't the star growing so much as getting closer, approaching at a speed that boggled the mind.

With a sudden lurch, the man named Ix vomited on the floor as consciousness returned. A dark, flowing taint seemed to writhe in his gut, causing him to heave again and again, even after he'd emptied his stomach.

Feebly, he pulled the gauntlet from his right hand, fetching a cloth from his hip pouch to wipe his mouth. That's when he noticed that the pain was gone from his body. Startled, he worked his right arm in a full circle, noticing that aside from a few twinges, he was completely healed. But at what price? he wondered.

Standing, his head spun for a moment. He braced himself against the pedestal, trying to steady himself. After a moment, the world stopped whirling around him and he was able to regain his balance.

Adjusting the sword so he could draw it easily, Ix turned, checking the room one last time. Aside from the braziers in each of the corners and the pedestal with the chest, the stone chamber was completely empty. There was something else here, yes? For some reason, he couldn't quite remember exactly what was missing.

As he turned and left the chamber, the man named Ix didn't see the pair of glowing red eyes that flickered briefly over the empty chest.

Upon reaching the entrance to the tunnel, Ix saw that the skeletal warriors hadn't budged. They still milled about, screaming their infernal cries. Towering over them, the giant skeleton hefted its massive club menacingly.

Steeling himself, the white-haired mercenary drew his sword. The eldritch runes along the shining elven blade seemed to catch the dim white glow that hung in the air, gathering it in and radiating it as a pale, unholy aura.

Crouching, Ix leapt, his blade arcing out and shearing through a skeletons ribs and backbone, splitting the creature in half. A gutteral roar ripped from his throat as he lunged forward, his sword leading him onward. Ancient steel split bone and iron alike, hewing through the undead horde as he slowly made his way back through them once again.

If a skeletal horror got past his blade, his black-gauntleted fist found it, crushing with the weight of a war hammer, smashing skulls and fracturing ribs, sending fragments of bones flying through the air.

Suddenly, the press of bones lifted and Ix found himself in a circle of undead warriors, facing the hulking form of the giant's skeleton. Knowing that he couldn't face such a creature in a fair fight, the man cast about for something to use against the monstrosity, some trick or tactic he could turn to his advantage.

Nothing presenting itself to his roving eyes. There was just him, the undead giant, and a circle of steel caging him in.

Thinking quickly, Ix spied Corenne standing on the raised floor of the temple, watching him. If we can open another gate, we can escape from here. But how to get past these fiends?

At that moment, the massive club came crashing at him. Leaping aside nimble, he brought his blade arcing down to strike the giant skeleton's wrist. Enchanted or not, his blade did little damage to the massive wrist bones, sending only a few bone chips flying.

Dodging the backhand strike of the giant, Ix thought up a daring plan. Nimbly leaping onto the giant's wrist, he vault upwards, catching the fiend's massive collar bone with his hand. Hauling himself up onto the beast's shoulder, he fought to keep his balance as the creature turned its burning sockets towards him.

Letting loose a Clan war cry, the silver-eyed man drove his keen blade home, sinking it between the skeleton's eyes and pushing deep into the skull. A deafening roar erupted from the gaping jaws of the horror, rocking him backward. The crimson glow in of the thing's eyes winked out and the whole bony frame began to topple over backwards.

Using the momentum of the undead creature, Ix leapt towards the temple, sailing over the massed skeletal warriors and hitting the ground with a grunt, rolling and tumbling end over end until he crashed against the raised section that was the floor of the shrine.

He lie there, dazed, the impact against both the ground and the temple fogging his mind with pain. A sharp scream brought some focus back. The elves, he thought grimly. Getting shakily to his feet, he saw what had caused Corenne's distress.

The undead were coming for them.

At the head of the horde was a figure clad in scorched plate armor, blood red runes embossed on the gauntlets and breastplate. In its hands it carried a massive greatsword, as long as Ix was tall and a hand wide at the base of the blade. Black as night, the sword burned with a malevolent crimson flame.

Harsh, gutteral chanting filled the air. The black-armored figure gestured, an unholy hammer of power flickering into being in its gauntleted left hand. With a deft flick of its wrist, the black warrior sent the hammer spinning towards Ix.

The white-haired man tried to dodge the whirling hammer but failed. It struck him full in the chest, sending him flying through the air to crash in a heap on the far edge of the pool.

Huddled on the cold stone, the taste of blood in his mouth, Ix knew he was hurt bad. Dying, perhaps, if he didn't get assistance. Rising slowly to his feet, he looked across the pool. His armored foe was standing there, no more than a dozen feet from him. The wan light in the cavern seemed to darken even more around the figure, shadows wrapping around it like a cloak.

Risking a look behind him, he has that Corenne had the raven-haired elf woman in her arms, half carrying and half dragging her as she backed away, towards the portal wall.

"Corenne!" he called to her, pain shooting through his lungs at the effort. "The portals, see if you can get one open, yes?" The girl nodded grimly, backing up to the wall and laying Illandra on the ground. As she turned her attention to the wall, Ix turned his back to the black-clad warrior across the shimmering pool from him.

His eyes fell back to the faintly-glowing pool. Hitting on a plan, he lashed out at the water with the flat of his blade, sending a spray of the glowing liquid at the armored figure.

As the droplets struck the shadowy figure, a sizzling hiss filled the air, along with a roar of fury as the armored warrior fell to the ground, rolling as the water burned it like acid. After the hissing died down, the figure clambered to its feat, wisps of shadow leaking from the holes in its armor where it had been burned by the water.

With a snarl that was unmistakable, the figure began uttering more harsh syllables, its gauntleted left hand twitching through the gestures of a spell. Turning, the silver-eyed man ran as fast as he could towards Corenne, who was busy lifting Illandra again. His insides burned like fire and a trickle of blood leaked from his mouth. But I am going to die, I will not let these fiends take the pleasure of it for themselves! his mind howled in fury.

Corenne slipped through the solid-seeming wall as he closed to within a dozen paces, Illandra's arm draped over her shoulder as she carried/dragged her. Suddenly, the chanting ceased, a dark sense of foreboding filling Ix.

Out of the shadows in front of him stepped the black-armored warrior, the bloody symbols etched on its armor glowing evilly in the gloom.

Ix dodged around the shadowy fiend, but he knew he hadn't moved far or fast enough as that massive eldritch blade of black steel spun in an arc, smashing into his left shoulder. Luckily, the magicks in his mail turned the blade, though it did little to stop the sheer force of the huge sword.

The man named Ix felt his left shoulder shatter like it was made of glass as he stumbled through the portal, blood filling his mouth as his own scream of pain and rage filled his ears. With a thundering crash, he was through the portal, pulled into the blackest depths of oblivion.


Embers of Black - Chapter 7 © Patrick Braddock

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