[Just a note, I kept forgetting to update the titles of The Fractured Mountains to the title of the first book of what I hope will end up a series, Darkness Ascending. I know that the story will not be wrapped up by the end of the first book. I also want to let you know that the adventures of Kreet and crew will eventually be laid out in the book Oceans Ablaze, which will likely turn into multiple books as well.]
Gaemacirch was scouting ahead of the group. Something that Burner didn’t normally ask them to do, but she was starting to get paranoid that something would attack out of the blue. She was sure it was just her being high-strung with the sidetracks to continuing north, but she still decided to heed the feeling. Julian was bringing up the rear, keeping an eye out for things coming from behind when he noticed that it was starting to get dark.
“Is it really that late already?” Julian studied the sky for a moment. “I didn’t think we left town this late.”
Dreekt shrugged. “The month is ending soon, so winter solstice is almost here. I assumed the days were just getting shorter from that.”
“I suppose so.” Julian looked back at the landscape behind them. “Just seems the days are getting shorter faster than they normally do.”
As the sun set on the party Burner called Gaemacirch back to look for a good campsite. Not long afterward Julian had to pull out his hooded lantern. “Ok, it’s definitely not supposed to be this dark already.” He pointed into the sky. “That’s the sun. What’s going on here?”
Burner followed Julian’s arm to look at the sun. “By the fount! What’s going on?”
No sooner did the words escape Burner’s mouth than an answer echoed across the plains. “Darkness is ascending.” A tall, slim human with short black hair and a short-cropped beard wearing scholarly robes and holding a strange, glowing red stone on a stick like it was a torch approached from the darkness.
“Who are you?” Burner looked at the human strangely, and why is a scholar out here?
Dreekt chuckled. “He’s a historian, not a scholar.” He waved at the human. “Well, hello there, Stigr.”
“The Pathfinder will do. You haven’t earned the right to call me by my first name yet.” Stigr nodded at Dreekt. “Though you will eventually, Wings.”
“Oops…can’t say anymore. Spoilers.” Stigr blushed slightly. “We tend to meet out of order.”
Gaemacirch walked into the circle of light. “Hey, so it’s getting hard for me to see, and I grew up in Dark Under. Somethings…oh, hello traveler.” He bowed slightly. “I’m Gaemacirch, but people call me Gaem.”
“Call me The Pathfinder.” Stigr nodded even more slightly to Gaemacirch. “I believe you may be coming to the conclusion I came to warn you about.”
“Darkness is ascending from the depths, yes?” Gaemacirch motioned at the darkness around them. “It’s getting thick like the depths of Dark Under. The parts we were told to never wander, even in groups.”
Stigr nodded. “Yes, exactly. I also came to tell you that you must rescue Slapper. He is integral to the future.” He then turned to Enress. “Here, Enress.” He handed her his strange torch. “Keep the stone safe. You’ll know what to do with it when you get there.” With a big smile Stigr disappeared.
“Well, that was foreboding.” Enress looked at the stone torch. “I have no idea what this is, but he seemed to think I would.”
Dreekt pulled out the black stone in the dagger and held it up to the red stone. The dagger leaped from his hand and the stones pressed together. The rattling they made was the same sound two smooth magnetite stones make when they pull together, only louder. The darkness around the adventuring company thinned out as if clean water was poured into a pool of muddy water, then the darkness slowly started flowing back in.
“That wasn’t expected.” Dreekt pulled the dagger from the stone torch. “I expect that there’s some way to make that more powerful. Cleanse the whole realm.”
– – –
When the company finally came to a halt for their rest the chill of the night forced them to scrounge around the plains for sticks to light a fire. Enress offered to keep watch all night again, but Burner insisted on having regular watch rotations on top of that. They had no way of knowing what else was ascending with the darkness.
The first few watches went without a hitch, but when Burner was talking the third watch there was an unmissable rattle that was coming closer and closer to the campsite.
“What is that?” Burner asked, walking toward Enress. “You do hear it too, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do.” Enress held the torch higher into the air, increasing the radius of light. A glint of white was just visible on the edge of the lit area. “Could be that.” She pointed at the glint. “I don’t know what it is, though.”
From the darkness six shambling skeletons approached with bits of shadow seeming to billow off of them like cloaks in an invisible wind.
“Everyone, wake up!” Burner turned to shake Gaemacirch awake. “Shadow skeletons are attacking! Six of them.”
Running forward to engage with the creatures Enress threw a punch at the gut of one skeleton, missing because it had not gut. “Shast.”
In response to the swing the shadow skeletons moved in and started to siphon Enress’ life energy away from her. The shadowy bits seemed to grow larger as she felt her life essence being drained.
Swinging again, with more carefully aimed punches, Enress’ spiked brass knuckles shattered the skull of one of the shadow skeletons.
Burner helped Gaemacirch to his feet then slung an arrow at the nearest shadow skeleton’s neck, breaking its head off and sending it to careen into another one.
Getting to his feet Gaemacirch approached and tossed a kunai at one of the shadow skeletons. The kunai passed through a pair of ribs and landed on the ground behind it.
The shadow skeletons were not deterred in their attempts to drain Enress’ life energy and drew even more life from the automaton, healing in the process.
Dreekt stood and tossed a spell at the shadow skeletons, causing a third to fall to the ground in pieces.
As the shadow skeleton fell, Julian’s axe flew through the air and nicked one of the shadow skeletons.
Seeing the shadow skeletons starting to fall Enress punched at the one closest to her. Its arms were outstretched to drain her life essence, but they did not keep the blows from hitting it and turning it to splinters.
With his katana Gaemacirch brought one to the brink and burned it badly. He assumed it was able to stand because it was being bolstered by the life energy being drained from Enress.
Burner shot an arrow at the neck of the shadow skeleton Gaemacirch had almost taken out and severed its head from its body as well.
The last shadow skeleton siphoned life from Enress and used it to bring back its ally whose head had just been severed. The head reattached to the spine and the shadow skeleton stood back up.
A spell passed by one of the shadow skeletons as Dreekt made an opening for Julian to move forward to attack in melee.
Julian approached and brought the flat of his axe’s blade up to smack the shadow skeleton’s head back off. He wasn’t sure if it would work, but it did.
With a final flurry of hits Enress reduced the remaining shadow skeleton to splinters. She then began gathering the bones.
“What are you doing?” Burner asked, not sure what to make of the arrival of the creatures.
Enress didn’t look up from her task. “I’m gathering the remains up to burn them. You know what these things are, is that a good idea?”
“Yes, if there are anymore shadow skeletons, they would be able to bring these ones back if we don’t dispose of them.” Burner sat down heavily. “I don’t know why creatures from Darkfall are doing in Nevre, but it must have something to do with this rising darkness…” She stopped talking, falling deep into thought.
Gaemacirch helped Enress collect the bones to throw on the fire. “The veil must be weakened between here and Darkfall if they’re appearing, right?”
Burner nodded. “Let’s hurry and get Slapper. It’s not going to get any brighter out than this, and then we need to get to Magnus. I’m sure this has something to do with what’s drawing me northward.”
“Yes, let’s hurry. I’m getting a bad feeling.” Julian started packing up his area of the camp. “I wish Adalet was here. She would know what’s going on. She always seemed to, anyway.”
Enress patted Julian on the shoulder. “Hey, let’s get to Slapper. We’ll piece this together as we go.”
“You’re right. Let’s get moving.”