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Embers of Black - Chapter Sixteen

Patrick Braddock
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The ground was frozen, making it all the harder for the small spade to bite deeply. It took longer than had been anticipated to finish this hole, though it was the last of the three. Already the sun was touching the far horizon, staining the sky an ugly red.

A day covered in blood, though the elf warrior-wizard known as Corenne the Dark. She paused with the head of the spade stuck in the ground, leaning against it to catch her breath. The fur-trimmed tunic she had been given by her drow companions was soaked with sweat, despite the coldness lingering in the air.

Drow� All her life, Corenne had heard stories of the descendants of the Ilythiir elves who had been banished with their goddess Araushnee to the realms below Faerun by the Seldarine, the elven gods. She had never expected to meet any, much less become allied with them. But these drow were different. They worshipped Eilistraee, whom they called the Dark Maiden, a goodly goddess who sought to be a beacon of light to the dark ones, and hoped for the drow's return to the sides of their aboveground cousins.

Sighing, Corenne got back to work, turning a last spadeful of frozen soil before setting the tool aside. As she turned towards her next duty, her throat clenched. To her side lay one of the drow maidens, her face composed as if sleeping. The jagged rip across her throat and the paleness to her body spoke of the eternalness of her slumber.

As she dragged this last slain dark elf into a grave, she still was amazed that Anluriel and the other two dark elves had managed to each carry one of their fallen comrades so far, seeing as how each of the survivors had borne fierce wounds themselves. She, Illandra, and the one drow who had remained behind had done what they could for the Anluriel and the other two, and now Corenne was seeing to doing what she could for the three who hadn't made it.

Throwing the last spadeful of dirt onto the grave, she tamped it down lightly with the metal head. Bowing her head, she offered up a prayer for the soul of the fallen elf. Corellon Lorethian, Father of Elves, take your daughter Eilistraee's humble servant to Arvandor and be merciful to her. She served her goddess well and was a steadfast comrade. For a long moment after she had finished her prayer, she stood silently, letting herself mourn for this fellow elf.

Finally, she raised her head, taking up the spade and setting it across her shoulders. She entered the mouth of the cave behind her, slowly wending her way through its twisting passages to the safety of the cavern within.

Inside, the air was warmer and now carried a faint mist from the waterfall in the back of the cavern. Illandra was busy looking over Anluriel and the other two dark elves. Anluriel was the only one of the three still awake, though from the way she slumped against the wall, Corenne was sure it was only the leader's iron determination that kept her conscious.

The drow's fine adamantite mail lay in a pile beside her, along with her tunic, a twin to Corenne's. A bloody bandage covered most of her chest and shoulders, covering up the vicious slash that had opened her up from shoulder to hip. Corenne was still surprised the dark elf had managed to make it back at all, much less carrying the body of one of her slain comrades.

"And that was all?" Illandra was asking as Corenne approached.

Anluriel nodded, her eyes closed. When she opened them, they were clouded with pain. "We heard someone scream and then those creatures were all around us. Jaeleth, Vaedonna, and Ansileth were brought down quickly; we were barely able to take them up. And we still do not know what happened to the rest."

The raven-haired elf nodded, taking Anluriel's hand in her own. "Lie down now, and sleep. Corenne and I will watch over you." The drow nodded and allowed herself to sink back onto the pile of furs beneath her. Soon, she was breathing the deep rhythm of sleep.

Illandra rose and moved over beside her friend. "Any word from Jaezil?"

Shaking her head, Corenne replied, "No. I finished with the three they brought back, but Jaezil hadn't returned yet."

Jaezil was the drow scout who had remained behind with her and Illandra, and had gone out when the other three returned to see if she could find any trace of the rest of the group.

Corenne gave her friend a quick hug and then began pacing her way around the cavern. As always when she did this, she stopped before the smooth patch of stone where a series of runes had been engraved in the shape of a doorway.

How many of these gates are there? she wondered as she ran her fingertips along the runes. Though she was careful not to trigger the magical gateway in case it led to the undead-infested temple she, Illandra, and Ix had discovered, she studied the runes very closely.

At first glance, they seemed dwarven in make, though Corenne had had little contact with those sturdy mountain dwellers. The longer she studied them, the more she saw that the runes also bore scant traces of elvish script, as well as the Thorass language from which the written human tongues had been derived. It seemed as if whatever civilization had first carved the runes had either been influenced by many diverse cultures or had placed its own indelible mark upon those same cultures.

Corenne tried to call up what she remembered of her history. Humans were the oldest native race of Faerun, though they had come to power only recently, within the past few thousand years. The runes seemed to be ancient beyond measure, and an elder, forgotten human civilization could explain why they bore a resemblance to Thorass. Except that wouldn't explain the elvish or dwarvish resemblance. Elves arrived through a portal from a distant world millennia ago, and the dwarves�Well, she didn't know much about the dwarves, but supposed it was something similar.

None of this helped her decipher the meaning behind the runes, much less tell anything about where the gateway led. She was still in the dark about most of this as when she had first opened the other gateway in the hollow where she, Ix, and Illandra had been trapped.

Her thoughts turned to the man named Ix, a man who was shrouded in mystery and still confused her to no end. At first, she had thought him cruel and wicked, dragging her and Illandra up the the room at the inn and leaving them both standing in only their skin. But, when he had returned, he had surprised her with both his generosity and his modesty. To spend so much and shrug it off�that was beyond Corenne's imagination.

During their time with the ill-fated expedition and after the orcish ambush, he had been strong, courageous, and considerate, seflessly defending her when she had been injured and protecting Illandra, as well. And in the temple, he had taken charge of the situation and had cut his way through the undead horde, trying to lead them away from the two elves.

Ix, where are you? She called up an image of the silver-eyed man, holding it firmly in her mind.

Corenne felt something touch her mind, something dark and malevolent, full of shadows and darkness. Taken off guard and filled with roiling terror, she tried to push the feeling away, but it clung to her, oozing around her thoughts like tar. She felt her body grow cold, spikes of ice jabbing into her gut. Falling to her knees, she tried to scream but could get no sound out, her face frozen in a silent rictus of fear and pain.

Then, suddenly, the feeling was gone, leaving her empty and drain. Her muscles refused to respond and she tumbled onto the ground, laying there, panting. Slowly, her strength began to return to her. When she was able, she rolled onto her back and sat up, drawing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them, trying to stop the shivering that had taken hold of her.

What was that? She looked around in wide-eyed terror, searching for something, anything that was out of place in the cavern.

Near the far wall, the three wounded dark elves slept deeply. Illandra was sitting on the rock that was the typical watch spot and didn't seemed to have noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Once her shivering had subsided, Corenne got shakily to her feet, turned to regard the gateway again. She ran her fingers over the runes again before turning to walk away, heading towards the room where Talomanes had been resting when they first arrived. She planned to start a fire there to drive away the chill that lurked within her bones still.

It took her a few tries to get the kindling going, but eventually a crackling fire blazes to life, doing its best to spread its cheery light through the small room. Satisfied, Corenne pulled the chair from the desk, seating herself and looking through the half dozen books stashed in a drawer. Half of the books were in the language of the drow, and were only so much gibberish to her, but a few of the remaining ones were written in the Common tongue, and one was written in flowing High Elvish script.

Picking up the book written in elven, Corenne opened it and leaned back, perusing the first few pages to get an idea of its contents. Judging by the dry, lecturing tone the writer had adopted, it seemed to be a treatise on the fall of the elven nation of Cormanthyr.

Snorting softly, she tossed it aside, picking up a book written in Common. This one was about the complex trade systems of the Sword Coast and was even less interesting than the book on long dead Cormanthyr.

A third book detailed the Orcgate Wars in the far country of Mulhorand and was told not so much as a history but as a compilation of heroic tales. Finally! she thought. This is something worth reading. She leaned back in the chair, propping her booted feet on the desk as she relaxed, letting the fire drive the chill from her bones as she became engrossed in the epic stories of heroism and deceit, love and treachery.

The blood-drenched sky faded to even darker shades as evening gave way to night. A howling wind screamed across the frozen plains from the west, tearing at the ground as if trying to dig up the foulness that festered within.

Freshly-turned soil shifted, clods of black dirt and small stones rolling off the rising mound. The wind rose to a fevered pitch, as if in tormented anguish. The ground shifted again and the dirt fell away from a hand that was once skinned as if by the night, but now a dull, listless gray. More of the frozen soil spilled away as a mail-clad torso lifted from the ground. The face of the creature wore an expression that could almost be mistaken for slumber, save for the staring eyes that glowed with a vile red aura. The tear in its throat seemed to cause it little distress and no blood flowed from the wound.

With a preternatural ease, the creature got to its feet, two others just like it rising from their earthen sleep behind it. They sensed the hot blood of living creatures coming from the dark cavern in front of them. As one, they stepped forward, the blackness of the entrance causing their unliving eyes no inconvenience.

With the pulsing thrum of life blood ahead of them, the creatures knew that soon they would slake their unnatural thirst.

Corenne jerked upright in her chair, blinking around as she tried to clear the fog of sleep from her mind. Straining her ears, she tried to pick up the sound that had awakened her.

"Help!" The cry came from the main cavern.

Tossing the book in her lap carelessly onto the desk, she ran through the short passage and into the main area. She pulled up short, blinking and wondering if she were awake or caught in the grip of some nightmare.

The three drow she had buried only a short while ago were back, moving purposefully towards Illandra and the three still groggy elves who had been sleeping up until then. From the pale, bloodless color of their skin and the dull red glow of their eyes, Corenne knew that the three corpses had taken up an unholy life.

Illandra put herself between the three walking corpses and the wounded drow, raising her hands and invoking an arcane syllable. Two darts of brilliant cyan radiance smashed into the first of the undead. It stumbled back a pace but continued on. The raven-haired elf was reaching into her pouch for a spell component when the horror reached her. With snakelike grace, it backhanded her, sending her tumbling to the wall. There was a sickening crunch and the elf fell still.

"Illandra! No!" Corenne reached through herself for the magic of the mystical Weave, drawing on the same spell her friend had just used and uttering the triggering word. The magic pulsed through her and a streaking missile of red energy burst from her hand, smacking solidly into the lead undead. It stopped for a moment and then seemed to shake itself before continuing on.

Growling, she sprinted towards the creatures, wishing she had a sword with her. As it was, she drew her heavy-bladed belt knife, intending to keep the undead fiends away from the wounded elves as long as she could.

When she was a dozen paces from the creatures, mystic chanting came from her left, where the three wounded drow were now on their feet. There was a shouted warning and Corenne fell prone on the ground. The air thrummed with power and a bolt of lightning shot over her head, blasting two of the creatures into chunks of scorched flesh and bone. The third continued on, ignoring the fate of its two companions.

There was a shouted command and a half dozen pulsing black darts shot overhead, slamming into the undead creature, rending flesh and mail and sending it sprawling. Even this didn't defeat it, though, and it began to rise with grim, purposeful movements.

That's when Corenne noticed the two blasted creatures.

A dark, shadowy substance oozed from the bits and pieces that lay strewn across the rocky ground, coalescing into two shapes of pure darkness, vaguely humanoid and with a pair of burning eyes.

Together, the two wraiths began advancing on the three drow, the remaining walking corpse bringing up the rear.

The cavern filled with a roar the left Corenne's ears ringing as a spinning flash of black arced through the air, crashing into the ghoul that brought up the rear and catapulting it across the ground.

A gleaming blade whistled down in a diagonal cut, splitting one of the wraiths in half. The creature burst into black flame and began to dissolve into shadowy tatters. The great two-handed blade looped around and clove through the second wraith in a backhand stroke, sending it into oblivion as well.

The elf picked herself up from the ground as Talomanes made his way to her, sheathing his two-handed sword in the scabbard hanging across his back. Oddly, a steely haired orc trotted across the cavern, moving to wrench a black iron axe from the chest of the fallen ghoul. It growled out a chant in its own gutteral tongue and gestured at the ghoul, which burst into flames, filling the cave with a wretched screech.

Checking her over for injuried, the paladin gave her a quick nod before moving off to the stricken Illandra. He knelt as Corenne watched, taking the raven-haired elf's head in his hands. A look of calm came over him as a golden nimbus of light enveloped his hands. It grew brighter for a moment and then flowed into the elf. After a moment, she stirred, moaning softly.

Smiling to himself, Talomanes heaved his armored body upright and walked to Anluriel and the two other dark elves. He laid hands on each of them, though the golden glow was less pronounced than it had been the first time.

A scuffing at the cavern entrance caused Corenne to spin around, expecting another assault. She relaxed when she was it was just Jaezil, as well as two others. One was the missing scout. Maezinessa, I think. The third was a woman who was swathed completely in red, save for her sharp-featured face. Her eyes roamed over the cavern, as if measuring every detail in the place.

Corenne turned to study the orc, a rather odd companion for the group if she did say so. It was taller than everyone there, save the paladin, and then it was close. Its skin was a light gray; steely hair tufted its forearms as well as its barrel chest. A single braid fell halfway down its back, bobbing up and down as the creature trotted back towards the entrance. It was wearing a pair of loose leather leggings, stout iron-shod boots, and its only concession to the cold was a thick cloak made from the hide of some white-furred animal. Slipping a wicked black iron axe into a loop at its belt, it fell in beside the missing scout, Maezinessa, and began talking to her in quiet tones. It shot a quick glance at Corenne as it was talking, and she got a glimpse of eyes the color of polished iron.

"Is everyone alright?" The paladin's voice boomed through the cavern, his eyes meeting those of each of the others there and receiving a quick nod in return. "We're going to be leaving. Even if the orcs don't know we're here, you can bet whatever these living shadows serve knows where we are." He gestured at the still smoldering corpse of the ghoul the orc had blasted.

"The rest of us are at an inn in Gemyn's Rest. We're going to get there and get ourselves patched up before we go running across the snow again." Corenne was a bit surprised at the competent way Talomanes took charge of everything, and surprised more when Anluriel seemed content to be relegated to a secondary role.

The paladin gestured at the red-cloaked woman. "That's Anjolina. Seems she wanted to follow me for a story or two. So far, she hasn't gotten in the way. If that changes, you've my permission to tie her up and leave her in a snow drift." The woman's features were a study of cool detachment, though her cheeks colored a bit at that.

"That's Korg." A gauntleted hand took in the axe-wielding orc with a broad gesture. "He's more than pulled his weight today. If he bugs you, you can try to tie him up." The orc threw back his head and roared with laughter. "But seeing how he's used that axe of his, that might be a bit of a problem."

Talomanes turned his eyes to Corenne. "Corenne, there's a stack of blades outside that Korg picked off an orcish patrol we surprised. Pick yourself one that suits you and then get back in here." The elf nodded and ran to the entrance as the paladin was barking out more orders.

A blast of freezing wind hit her as she emerged from the passageway. In just those few moments being faced by those undead monstrosities has soaked her clothes with sweat, and now the wind was doing all it could to freeze her solid, it seemed.

Shivering, she bent over and studied the blades on the ground. Most were heavy iron blades, sheathed in crudely stitched leather or fur. A few axes were also tossed haphazardly with the swords, their heads wickedly curved and wrought in black iron.

At the bottom of the stack, a flash of color caught Corenne's eye. There lay a red-lacquered scabbard with a fine-tooled, leather-wrapped hilt jutting from the top. Her curiosity piqued, she squatted down to get a better look. Sure enough, it was the sword that the silver-eyed Ix had bought her what seemed a lifetime ago. Wonderingly, she lifted it from the snow, partially drawing it and noting that the blade was still as finely honed as it had been before.

Smiling in satisfaction, she stood, using a length of scarlet ribbon to tie the scabbarded blade to her belt. Now, if only I could find my spellbook, she thought wistfully.

Running her fingers over the soft leather wrapping the hilt, she turned and re-entered the cavern, never noticing the pair of tracks in the snow that had approached the pile of weapons and then simply disappeared.


Embers of Black - Chapter 16 © Patrick Braddock

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