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Embers of Black - Chapter Ten

Patrick Braddock
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Head turning left and right, looking for any possible danger, Naestra sprinted across the tundra. The war cries of the paladin had cut off abruptly, though she didn't want to think what that must mean.

Her mind was whirling with what had happened. She didn't know how the paladin fit into anything anymore, but to have to abandon him when� No time for that now, girl, the voice of her instructor thundered in her brain. Keep your eyes sharp and your wits sharper or you'll end up a corpse. Shivering, she ran onward. A brush with death once in a lifetime was close enough for her.

The assassin stopped and spun around, dropping into a crouch as she brought her bow to the ready position. The two elves had been close behind her, only a dozen or so yards away. Ashera and the white-haired man, both burdened by armor, were nearly a hundred yards further back. The cloak of the man named Ix billowed behind him like a flag, snapping in the wind as he ran.

Naestra signalled for the two elves to halt so they could let the cleric and silver-eyed warrior catch up. As she stood there, her mind turned back to dawn, when she had been so intent upon killing the man in front of her that she had failed to hear the orcs sneaking up behind her. She could still feel the bite of the arrow as it sank into her back and the terrible lurch that followed, the pull of something dark and eternal upon her soul.

Then there had been that golden light that snatched her from the blackness, holding her in gentle arms. When she had opened her eyes and seen Talomanes gazing down at her, she knew that it was his arms that had brought her back, and she knew that if she belonged anywhere, it was there, with him.

Shifting uneasily, a slight blush on her cheeks, she watched the pair of stragglers as they approached, Ix running easily in his armor while Ashera panted and gasped for breath.

The white-haired man glanced at the women, then said, "We take one minute to rest, then we move. Stay together, yes. Let us give meaning to that man's sacrifice." Nods met his orders.

Ashera was bent over, her hands on her knees as she tried to get her wind back. Illandra and Corenne were talking quietly amongst themselves, Ix listening to them without their notice. After a moment, he made a quiet statement to them, causing them both to jerk around and stare at him, blushing profusely.

Boots crunching through snow, Ashera joined the assassin. Though the fair-haired cleric was nearly a hand shorter than she, the woman possessed a demeanor that made her seem taller, somehow.

Placing a mailed hand on Naestra's shoulder, the cleric whispered, "Whatever happened between you and Talomanes was for the best." Naestra's head whipped around, catching the oddly blank expression on the other woman's face. Before she could say anything, though, the cleric had moved away, towards the other three.

Nothing happened, the assassin thought. And if it did, it doesn't matter now. He's dead. She turned her eyes back to the east, her fingers touching her leathers where they hid Talomanes' holy symbol. You can't be dead. You just can't�

"Come! We go now." The silver-eyed man took the lead, taking a steady, rolling pace that wasn't quite a jog and covered ground quickly. The others fell in behind him, Naestra taking up the rear, her short bow held at the ready, an arrow nocked in case there was trouble.

As the day drew on and the shadows lengthened, the five companions closed on the town of Develor. All of them noticed a dark smudge on the horizon, like a dark haze hanging in the sky. Concern and fear urged them onward, running as fast as they could towards the town.

At sunset, they reached Develor.

The tent city that had risen outside the town's gate was nothing but a black scar on the ground. The timbers of the wall that had surrounded the town were scorched and shattered, most of the barrier rising no more than a few feet above the ground. The twin stone towers that had stood watch over the gate itself were nothing more than piles of rubble. Oddly enough, there were no bodies among the wreckage of the gate, either from townsman or invader.

Picking their way through the destruction and entering the town itself, the companions saw that the destruction was complete. No building remained standing within the town. It was as if a great sword of fire had simply swept in, cutting down everything in its path.

As they neared the center of the ravaged town, they began to find bodies. One or two, here and there, at first, then giving way to heaps of corpses of a score or more. Men, women, and children had been put to the sword. Though many of the dead showed signs of ash and soot, none of them were burned.

"These people, they were killed after their city was destroyed," Ix observed quietly. "Whoever attack, they herded the people away from town, razed it, then butchered the entirety of the people, yes."

The brown-haired elf woman, Corenne, was weeping softly, Illandra holding her gently in her arms, trying to comfort her, even though she herself was crying silently. Ashera was moving from body to body, laying a hand on each and saying a brief benediction to the Morninglord for a promise of redemption in the Kingdom of the Dead.

The assassin and the mercenary, however, were busy examining the area and keeping an eye out for returning marauders. The silver-eyed man had seen carnage on this scale before and death was a part of the assassin's trade, so the horrors of the town affected them little, though Naestra only touched the bodies briefly with her eyes, especially avoided the twisted corpses of the children.

After she made a full circuit of the area, Naestra approached Ix. "The orcs?" she asked softly.

Nodding slowly, the white-haired man replied, "Yes�but not only. Here, look." He knelt beside the body of a girl who looked no more than sixteen or seventeen winters. Pointing to the gaping wound that had ripped open her throat, nearly severing her head, he said, "This was no orc, though. And this," he pulled a crude arrow with green fletching and the image of a snake burned into the shaft, "bears the mark of a gnoll tribe from the lands to the south."

"Orcs, gnolls, and more horrible things besides� Someone has built themselves quite an army," the assassin observed quietly, her soft brown eyes examining the nearby bodies for more signs.

"And whatever destroyed the city, it was not something natural, yes." The man was turning his head, looking at the blasted wreckage around them.

Naestra's brows drew together. "Magic? Like what destroyed the expedition?"

Nodding, Ix said, "Though I did not see what exactly had happened, I would think it was something similar, yes?" Standing, he said, "Let us get the others. I do not wish to be around here when the sun goes down. Perhaps some of these dead, they do not sleep so restfully. There is a small village, Gemyn's Rest, a dozen or so miles southeast of here. We will press on to there, yes?"

The white-haired mercenary and the brown-haired assassin got the others together and the five remaining companions left the blasted town of Develor as the shadows of night began to gather around the ruined buildings and mounds of dead. Without looking back, they plodded along, following the frozen dirt of the road that led to the hamlet of Gemyn's Rest.

Full darkness surrounded the group, the two elves keeping watch with their keen heat-sensitive eyes. All of them saved for the man named Ix and the assassin stumbled along, fatigue and a jumble of emotions draining the energy from their bodies.

Her thoughts turning over the events of her life, Naestra's eyes swept continually over the moonlit plains. The emptiness of the tundra was a stark contrast to the confusing array of images that danced through her mind. She saw herself with her parents when she was a child growing up on the streets of Iriaebor, plying her skills at begging and pickpocketing among the towers of the merchant city.

She remembered the day her parents had told her she was to marry the son of one of the higher ranking thieves in the guild and the argument that followed. It was then at the age of sixteen winters that she had struck out on her own, eventually falling in with the Blacksword Alliance and ending up being sent to Waterdeep, to be trained as an assassin and a soldier of the shadows in their war with the established thieves' guild, the Xanathar's Guild.

Four years of wandering and training and now she was here. The bleakness of the landscape fit the dark turn her mind had taken. Twenty years, and I have nothing to show for it except what I'm wearing. Her fingers found their way downt he neck of her leathers, pulling out the cold steel disc hanging from her neck. Clenching it in her fist, she thought, Oh, how I wish I had your convinctions, Paladin of Torm. She loosened her hold on the holy symbol, rubbing it gently with her thumb.

Amazingly, for a moment, she felt those strong arms around her once more, the warm golden glow filling her. The strength of the feeling caused her to trip and fall to her knees. Bowing her head, she prayed silently for the soul of the paladin who had given himself to buy them time. Torm, guide your champion safely to your side, that he might serve you in death as he served you in life.

Her ears caught the sound of someone approaching from behind. Naestra got quickly to her feet, ignoring both Ashera's quietly-voiced questions and the tears streaming down her own cheeks.

The bleakness was still there, but it was bearable, as the memory of arms cradling her in a tender embrace lifted her heart and gave her strength.

From the darkness, a pair of glowing red eyes watching the five companions, waiting for the Call. Soon, the guardian would call the creature and its companions to do their duty once more, to draw the life from these mortals bodies and drink their souls as they died.

Hidden by the darkness, the creature was safe, being made from shadowstuff and given a will and a desire to consume life. The shining one's blood had tasted wonderfully sweet, but it had ended too soon, leaving the wraith's thirst unslaked.

Shifting restlessly, the vaguely manlike shape turned its attention to its half score of brethren, each of them eagerly awaiting the time to strike. Soon, the creature thought, the guardian will Call us and we will taste the life of these mortals, revel in their screams of terror and pain. With a chuckle that sounded like rough leather brushing against bone, the wraith looked forward to the coming attack with a malignant relish.

A cold breath of wind brushed Naestra's neck, causing her to shiver and wrap her arms around herself. The wind seemed to sap her strength, making her look forward to the comforts of Gemyn's Rest ahead.

"How much farther?" she called softly, turning to look at Ix.

The assassin found herself staring into a pair of crimson eyes that seemed to float in midair. With a startled exclamation, she jumped backwards, drawing her knives in one smooth motion and lashing out, but the blades passed harmlessly through the creature. With a laugh that sounded like it came from the depths of a tomb, the shadowy beast struck at her, its claws passing through her leathers and sinking into her chest, filling her with a terrible numbness.

Grunting in pain, she stumbling back, falling into the frigid embrace of another of the shadowy creatures. She cried out as pain and a terrifying coldness filled her body, chilling her to her very soul. A streak of silver flashed overhead and abruptly the horrible chill was gone, leaving Naestra filled with fatigue and a dull emptiness.

More of the shafts of silvery light lanced out of the darkness, some passing overhead to land beyond the companions, others seemingly lodging in the air, sinking into the shadow beasts that were attacking the party.

The assassin's keen eyes caught sight of a circle of blackness springing into existence against the moonlit plains. There was a sense of movement and then the arrows that were hanging in the air began to head towards the dark opening as the wraiths in which they were embedded retreated. After a moment, the black portal closed, shrinking to a pinpoint and then vanishing completely.

Lying there, dazed still, she looked to her companions, still trying to piece together what had just happened. Dark forms showed that the others had collapsed, as well, though soft moans indicated that most of them were alive, if injured.

Softly, the sound of stealthy feet on snow carried to Naestra's ears. She looked around, spotting a handful of dark figures creeping towards the felled companions. Gathering her remaining strength, the assassin sprang into a fighting crouch, snatching up her fallen knives and bringing them into a defensive stance.

"Hold!" a soft voice hissed. "We mean you no harm."

Dubious, the assassin didn't relax, yet made no motion towards the figures. The dim shapes likewise made no further moves towards her. After a moment, she relaxed, realizing that in the condition she and the others were in, whoever these people were could kill them all fairly easily. "My friends are hurt," she said simply.

"Yes," the figure facing her murmured. It moved its hand in an intricate series of gestures and one of the other shadows moved forward, towards Naestra's companions. It murmured softly, its hands glowing with a soft silvery aura. Placing its glowing hands on the still form in front of it, the light seemed to seep into the the unconscious person.

As the shadow moved to the next stricken shape, the figure in front of the assassin spoke again. "Be at ease, human. We are here to help you." There was another complex set of motions with its hand and then a softly glowing ball of light winked into being overhead.

Naestra found herself looking at the delicate features and ebon-hued skin of a female dark elf.


Embers of Black - Chapter 10 © Patrick Braddock

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