The Heartless Dead: Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine
A Lonely Blade

Bree awoke in the pre-dawn hours feeling better rested than she had in months. Despite the multitude of possible reasons for this – she had eaten well, spent the day traveling and Kelestair had warned her that she would only need a few hours sleep if she wore that ring he had given her – Bree suspected something greater was at work. A feeling of calm and determination had washed over her during the night, soothing her worries and troubles into petty trifles.

The determination was familiar to her. She was often driven by Cayden Cailean to complete dauntless tasks much larger than she herself should be able to accomplish. But the calm? The serenity? Where had those come from? Surely they were the result of more than just a good nights rest?

Bree shrugged as she swung her pack onto her back. She had a strong suspicion that whatever was causing the strange inner stillness was woven into the new gear Kelestair had given her. But which piece of clothing had he ensorcelled with a calming spell? Surely it wasn’t the ring? That would have been the obvious choice, of course, but Kelestair was smart. Too smart. He knew Bree wouldn’t have wanted any spells to pacify her emotions. There was no way he would have placed it in an obvious place! Or would he? Perhaps he was counting on Bree’s assessment of his intelligence to confuse her…

Bree scowled. Did it even matter? More to the point, did Kelestair even know a spell that could affect emotions? He could augment the physical prowess of others, but manipulate the emotions? She had never seen him cast a spell of that nature before. She sighed. Kelestair was no enchanter… Perhaps she was letting Tempest’s memories seep through into her own? No, it couldn’t be! She hadn’t had any trouble controlling her blade since she first came under its sway over a year ago! It couldn’t be Tempest, could it?

No. She was being paranoid. Her calm was just the aftereffect of a good night’s sleep. In fact, it wasn’t even calm she was feeling, but certainty. Certainty in her mission and certainty in her coming victory. Yes, that was it.

Certainty. Faith.

Those were emotions she could understand.

Bree walked out of her tiny room in the tavern’s loft. Whatever was going on, one thing was certain. She had spent too much time lazing about in safe little towns. She was getting restless. Second guessing herself. Over thinking. What else could have caused her to be so confused she didn’t even know what she was feeling?

The time for worrying was over. Her safe little holiday was coming to an end. She was heading out to stalk the most aggressive of the gnoll tribes in the region. Alone. It would be dangerous and she would need to keep her emotions in check. What did it matter where her certainty was coming from? She would need it.

Bree dropped a golden coin stamped with the likeness of a genie on the tavern’s bar. It was much more than she owed the barkeep for the use of a bed for a few hours, but Bree didn’t mind. There were few things she supported more than taverns. She had spent the better part of her life in bars, after all – living, working, drowning away her sorrows and later, praying. Besides, the extra coin could buy her a fine toast! She walked behind the bar and perused the bottles of alcohol with glee. She chose a dark looking, stout ale and poured herself a full pint. She raised her glass to her roof and prayed.

“Bless my coming quest, my Lord. Lend me your courage, lend me your luck, and lend me your spirits!” Bree smiled at the hideously poor pun and downed the entire mug. “Cayden’s will be done.”

Bree placed her mug onto the counter beside the coin and strode out of the tavern. It was dark out. The moon was little more than a sliver in the sky and the stars were dim. Bree stood motionless for a full minute, willing her eyes adjust to the gloom. Her calm smile quickly dissolved into a frown, and then a scowl. Tipped tankard! No matter how hard she strained her eyes to see in the dark, her vision was no better than it had been last year. How had Dashki and Fudin managed to adjust themselves so well to the night?

Bree drew Tempest with a sigh. A familiar mould crept along her arm, from fingertips to elbow, as if she were drawing on a long glove. It chilled her more than she would have liked in the cold of night, but the soft blue glow its frosted blade gave off was invaluable to her. With the path ahead now dimly lit, Bree walked away from the safety of Thrice Hills into the dangers of the Brazen Peaks.

By the time the sun rose Thrice Hills was nothing more than a speck on the horizon. A distant memory. Bree had slipped into her holy hunt as easily as one would don a shirt. She watched her surroundings with cautious eyes, listened with attentive ears and sniffed at the air around her. She slipped through the rocky crags and clefts of the Brazen Peaks as if she were nothing more than a whisper on the breeze. She was silent. Unnoticed.

She did not expect to come upon the Three Jaws tribes for a week, at least, but they were not the only dangerous denizens that made these jagged peaks their home. Though the most common predators were lions, jackals, and monstrously sized scorpions, large blood-sucking lizards known as chupacabra were also common, as were rocs, griffins and harpies. Those who did not tread carefully in the Brazen Peaks did not live long.

Bree travelled during the day, trusting in Tempest’s cooling presence to fend off the heat stroke that had plagued her during her early travels under the hot desert sun. She followed the river – not along the river bank, of course, that would have been a death wish! But amidst the rocks and small cliffs parallel to it, always keeping the life giving waters within sight. Each night she found shelter and bedded down only to awaken after a few hours fully rested. Though she would have liked to get moving as soon as she awoke she kept a silent vigil the rest of the night instead. She could use Tempest to light her way, but she couldn’t move silently with it clutched in her grip. Her noisy blundering coupled with Tempest’s glow would make her a massive beacon to all the nocturnal hunters in the region. She had no doubt she could best any predators who came after her, but the noise of combat would only draw more and there was only so much Bree could handle when she could only see a few feet ahead of her.

Over the past year Bree had been forced to admit to some of her weaknesses, as Nes had pushed her to do before his death. Confidence had been the first she had noticed and she had worked hard in the intervening months to ensure she had the skill to back it up. Sympathy had been the second and though she was trying to conquer her emotions, her pity for the remaining members of the Wormhollow Tribe had cost her greatly against the Circle. It was not a mistake that she would allow herself to make again. The stakes were too high.

Her stubbornness was obvious to many, but Bree had adamantly decided that it was not a weakness. Stubbornness was a strength. Perhaps she would deal with it in the future. What she was coping with now was restlessness. She wasn’t about to let impatience turn her into a drunken preacher! Not against the Three Jaws! That would mean her death and Bree was not a woman ready to die. How could she join her Lord in eternal revelry if she had failed the task he had set before her?

How could she –

Bree paused.

She quirked and eyebrow and squinted her eyes. She thought she saw…

No. It was impossible! The Three Jaws should still be the better part of a week away!

Bree squinted her eyes tighter, and eyed the object near the river warily. It looked like a weapon, though what it was doing in the middle of nowhere, over ten feet from the river’s edge with no sign of a corpse in sight, Bree couldn’t fathom.

She scanned the surrounding area, looking for movement or signs of an ambush. The minutes passed by slowly, with only the sound of her breathing, the pounding of her heart and the rush of the river to mark the time. Eventually, Bree crept forth from the boulder she had been crouched behind and picked her way across the rocks and ridges to the blade.

It was a scimitar. Rather large and of middling quality. Its blade was rough, but not jagged. It was clearly of gnoll craftsmanship. A few ears and teeth had been twined around the hand guard marking it as once belonging to a member of the Three Jaws Tribe.

Bree eyed the rocks and surrounding area again. No gnoll would have given up his weapon freely and the odds of a one dropping a blade this size and not noticing were astronomical. So why couldn’t Bree see any signs of a disturbance in the surrounding rocks? She hadn’t expected to see footprints – the ground was too rocky for that – but the loose pebbles and scree should have allowed her to identify a disturbance of some kind… Still, she saw nothing.

The scimitar was much too far away from the river’s edge to have come drifting with the current. Its bared blade wasn’t worn or ravaged by the elements. It wasn’t broken or chipped. Bree reached out tentatively and stroked the blade’s crude edge. Still sharp. It couldn’t have been here long.

But what were the Three Jaws doing this far south? They should be five days further into the Brazen Peaks, at least! Had Dashki lied to her about their whereabouts?

Bree shook her head. No. She wouldn’t put it past him, of course. He was a lying cur who hated her passionately, but she had watched him as he spoke. His demeanor, his gestures, his eyes. He hadn’t lied.

Had the Three Jaws moved without telling him? Surely Dashki’s old tribe mates didn’t think he would betray them for her? They were the most terrifying of all the gnoll tribes in the entire country and had the egos to match. They couldn’t have possibly thought Dashki would give them up for life in Kelmarane!

And how had this blade gotten here, anyway? There were no corpses or animal trails nearby. Perhaps it had been dropped by a flying predator? A griffin or a roc who had been feasting on a gnoll?

Bree sighed. Something about this didn’t feel right.

She lifted her wineskin from her hip and held it up to the sky. “Lend me a little Cayden’s luck, my Lord. I have a feeling I’m going to need it.” She took a deep swig of her cheap, white wine, and replaced it at her hip. She crept back to the shadows of the surrounding rocks and outcroppings and continued her journey down the river’s edge. A strange feeling sent a shiver down her spine. It wasn’t fear, exactly, nor dread. It was more akin to apprehension. Her body tensed in response.

Bree swallowed her rising nervousness and shoved it down as deep as she could. Some gnolls could smell strong emotions and she could not let herself be given away before she was ready. Not against the Three Jaws. Bree would need every advantage she could to come out of this alive.

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