Zachary: Party’s First Battle
The flame’s bouncing shadows tease of impending horrors—any movement hints of a chance to spot whatever creature descends upon us. Our heavy breath swirls around our mouths. Even with the cold, my palms begin to sweat. Silent, still, waiting.
Zoiya looses her arrow. A shape leaps out of the darkness, colliding with the arrow in the air. It squeals as the arrow finds purchase but continues its pounce towards Tok. The creature clamps onto Tok’s arm, who stumbles to keep his balance. The snow beneath him turns red.
Margot launches a streak of fire from her flaming hands that burst right into the creature’s flank. It lets go of Tok’s arm and screeches in pain, now fully visible in the firelight. Its white scaly body forms a long neck, a hunched back, and a twisting tail, a row of thick spikes along its spine. It stands on four clawed feet about waist height, with a short horn on either side of its angular head. Margot’s fire leaves the tips of its pearly white scales singed.
“For all we joked about dragons, I didn’t think we’d actually meet one!” I shout. In its vulnerability, I step around to strike at its other flank with my sword. The hit lands with a clinking sound, barely breaching its thick hide. I feel no slice into its flesh, probably bruising it at best.
“Watch out!” Zoiya exclaims. I don’t have time to move before a force slams me from behind. I land face-first into the hardened snow. There’s a blinding pain in my shoulder, and I feel my consciousness fade for a moment. Claws dig into my shoulder blades. I hear a blade sink into its flesh, sense a flash of light, hear the creature shriek, feel its blood dripping onto my back.
Amongst the chaotic sounds of battle, there’s a faint flute melody from our half-orc. A warmth washes over me, and I find myself with renewed energy. My mind clears, and I’m able to press up and get my face out of the snow to view the surroundings. Tok has stepped back from the fray and plays varying melodies. The rest of us are clumped around the fire with these two dragon creatures, Zoiya shooting point-blank against the monster that approaches. She shoots another arrow, but it only skims its back. Margot’s flame chars its tail, but the creature still stands.
Summoning my strength, I roll to the right in one quick surge. Despite this creature’s weight on my back, I somehow manage to succeed in pushing it over into the fire. It squeals as flames lick around its body, turning black. Weakened from Nevahl’s potent attack, the dragon is unable to escape the pull of the flames. It shrieks one last time and then goes limp. Nevahl, seeing his previous target dead, turns immediately to the one stalking Zoiya and imposes himself between them. His sword strike misses as it jumps out of the way, but the man’s large shield provides a barrier to protect them from any counter the dragon might attempt.
Tok’s flute tune suddenly turns low and ominous, and at the surge of the melody a roll of thunder booms. At first, I think there’s an even worse storm upon us before a visible wave of force swells out from the flute. I feel nothing but a passing of wind as the dragon is thrown off its feet and into the mountain wall behind us. It slams into the stone with a crack and falls limp at the base.
I exhale a long breath and slowly rise to my feet. The snow cover around us is spattered with red drops. Tok takes a few steps before sinking onto the first log, swaying a bit. Nevahl, breathing heavily, walks over to him and puts a hand on his shoulder. “That was amazing,” he praises. Then his hand begins to glow. White tendrils pass across his body and reach the wounds in his arm. Tok smiles and is able to straighten in his seat.
“Thanks,” he says. The half-orc’s yellow eyes fall on each one of us, gripping weapons with white knuckles and breathing heavily. He raises the flute from his lap and begins to play. The tune brings with it a moment of peace, and it’s like we all collectively exhale while the adrenaline of the battle fades.
When the song is finished, there are a few moments of silence. I look around the aftermath of the bloodshed. “Okay, so again…dragons?” I ask as the others join Tok in taking a seat around the fire pit, the fire itself unable to survive around the creature’s thick body lying across it. Margot ignites her hands, providing light.
“They’re not dragons,” Nevahl says, crossing over the log to sit down beside Tok. “They’re drakes, part of the dragon family. Much smaller and not quite the same shape. See? No wings on these guys.”
These creatures were, in fact, wingless. And I suppose they were more stout than the drawings I’d seen of dragons.
“We survived them,” Margot says lightly. I can’t tell if she’s surprised or proud. Or perhaps still in a state of shock.
“Yes, we did,” Tok says. “I think that went rather well.”
“Other than the large teeth marks in my shoulder blades, yes,” I say, rolling my muscles back. The immediate searing pain washed away with Tok’s magic, but a dull ache remains.
“If you’re worried about maintaining smooth and perfect skin, this isn’t the trade for you,” Zoiya says.
“Oh no, I’m fine,” I say back. This wouldn’t be my first scar.
“Come, let’s finish our rest before the sun keeps us up,” Nevahl suggests. “We can deal with this aftermath in the morning.”
“Are we just going to sleep next to these dead bodies?” Margot’s staring at the trail of red snow leaking out from the drakes.
“They could attract bigger predators,” Zoiya says worriedly. “But anywhere nearby we toss them would still trace back to our camp. And the further out we travel, the more places to pick up on our scent.”
“I think the best we can do is just stay on high alert.” Nevahl steps up and pushes the drake body off the center of our fire pit. “I’ll take the next watch and get this fire restarted—”
He starts as a streak of fire shoots past him and hits the mound of dirt. A group of short flames spring up for a moment before quickly diminishing and disappearing, not enough fuel to keep them.
“Darn,” Margot whispers.
“Right,” Nevahl says, “I, uh, forgot you could just do that. It won’t light without more fuel though.”
“Then I’ll stay up and go with you to collect it.” Margot stands and uses a foot to kick over her bedroll’s open sheet, closing the fabric layers. “Sleep well, everyone.”
“Don’t stray far,” Zoiya warns as she places her bow next to her bed. She then reaches into her pack and sets out her small wicker cage, illuminating our camp while our primary source of light wanders off.
Nevahl nods in agreement and straps his shield to his back for a free hand while continuing to hold his sword. I shift back between my sheets as Margot’s flame breaks off from camp.
I close my eyes as if to sleep but don’t really let my focus fade. With our scouts gone, I have a hard time letting my guard down. They’re smart enough not to wander out of sight of the camp, but I’m still shaken from the drake attack and not quite ready to just surrender my awareness. It was hard to do so before any dangers had come. Thinking about the battle makes my heart start to race again, despite being out of immediate danger. We handled the drakes just fine, and we can do so again. Even any injuries suffered are short-lived with healing magic on our side. Fatality was unlikely, and pain was temporary. Yet my mind is swirling with the what-ifs, and as the night draws on, exhaustion takes its hold.
I’m awake long enough to hear Margot and Nevahl return. They whisper about the fire. Nevahl teaches her how to arrange the kindling properly, and she sounds eager to learn, despite her comment pointing out that they don’t have to rely on perfect wilderness skills when she can magic a firestarter at any time. I hear the fire roar to life, and as the aura of heat expands, its comfort is enough to distract my mind and allow me to relax. I finally have a chance at sleep.
I can feel the stiffness under my eyes the minute Margot wakes me for the last watch. There’s only an hour or two before sunrise, so it’s shorter than the rest. I sit quietly and tend to the remains of the fire until the others begin to wake. One by one, they pack up their bedrolls and take a seat on the logs.
“Anyone up for roast lizard?” I joke and hear the grogginess in my own voice.
“You didn’t actually cook the drakes, did you?” Margot asks, horrified.
I shake my head and gesture to the intact bodies left in our camp. “We could, though. A hearty breakfast for the day of travel.”
“If you had fed it to me without telling me what it was, I might have eaten it,” she says. “I’m not sure I’d eat it voluntarily.”
“He has a point though,” Zoiya says, and I wonder if she’s ever agreed with me before. “Make use of it while we can. Save our rations.”
“It was certainly cold enough for the meat to keep,” Nevahl points out, but despite accepting the logic, he clearly isn’t big on the idea.
“You’ll just have to close your eyes and down it quickly. It’ll be fine,” I say.
“You sure they aren’t like, poisonous?” Margot asks, like a last-ditch effort to come up with why we shouldn’t.
“I’ve never heard of any poisonous drakes,” Nevahl says. “Unfortunately.”
While Zoiya begins work on getting meat from the drakes, I pack up my own bedroll and bag. If I remember correctly from the journey up, Archdale is about four days or so out. Of course, that all depends on the relative pace of the group and if there are any more obstacles along the way. I have to keep reminding myself that’s all that’s left of our relationship with the frigid North. Just a few more days left, and then we’re back to the northern plains, no longer at risk of freezing to death every night or being jumped by mountain monsters.
My traveling party did a supply run at Archdale but spent the rest of the day pushing further up the mountain, so I don’t remember much of the city. I was disappointed, wanting to stay and explore more. From what I’d heard growing up in the same region, Archdale was the closest establishment that sounded like a better fit for someone like me. It’s the largest city in the northeast, expanding outward along the base of the mountains with their peaks as the city’s backdrop. It inhabits all manner of humanoids who tolerate the cold, making it a central place to meet unique and exciting people from all over. I’m most disappointed I didn’t get to meet the Ironbrand. There was a time when I thought I’d be one of them. Maybe if this adventuring company doesn’t work out, I’d still go back and try.
“Zachary?” Tok asks
I shake my head, snapped out of my thoughts. “Yeah? Sorry, I was just thinking about Archdale.”
“You haven’t exactly told us what we’re doing there yet.” Nevahl looks pointedly at Tok.
The half-orc stares out into the snowbank as if thinking or pretending he didn’t hear, which would be impossible in this silent landscape. A few moments pass before Zoiya rises from a crouch next to the fire holding sticks slabbed with small and shriveled pieces of meat. “Food’s ready.”
Margot wrinkles her nose but takes a stick anyway. Even with her disgust, she’s the first to take a bite. She’s braver than she looks. There’s no repulsion or gagging, so it’s not as bad as we think. I take a bite. The consistency is similar to a pork chop, thick and chewy. There are some crunchy moments—like there are veins of ice crystals inside, despite the meat being warm. It’s an odd food, but not the worst. And I imagine we may have to eat much worse along our travels.
Margot throws her empty stick into the fire and holds out her hands to warm them. “Did everyone sleep well?”
There’s an incoherent grumbling across the group.
“Yeah,” she agrees.
“I feel better than I did after that drake chomped down on my shoulder,” I say.
Nevahl leans down and picks up a hardened chunk of snow. He lays his longsword over his thighs and wipes the snow against the blade, cleaning off drake blood. “We didn’t do too bad against them, did we?”
“I told you we’d figure it out,” Tok says, grinning.
“Through practice, like I said,” Zoiya mumbles. Then to everyone, “But let’s not get cocky. That was like squashing rats compared to what’s out there.”
“Just let us be proud of ourselves for a moment,” I complain, to allow the spirits of the group to rise but also because I’m getting frustrated with her trying to undermine any positive emotion. “We solved a problem together—isn’t that what Tok was looking for when he chose us?”
There’s a pause, and then we all look at the half-orc, who now has a ring of scattered bark pieces in the snow around him as he peels the stick. He looks up suddenly in the silence and recognition that we expect him to contribute to the conversation now. “The first thing a company needs to learn is how to work together.”
“Out of curiosity, why were the others not invited to join?” Nevahl asks carefully. “I mean, I respect your decision, of course. It just seemed to me that everyone there that day was an equally capable warrior, and is there not strength in numbers?”
“There are,” Tok agrees. He picks up the stick Zoiya cast on the ground and starts peeling that one too. “But groups that large are hard to manage. I had to consider carefully.”
“What gave us the edge?” I ask, now curious too.
Tok answers, “We are not mercenaries. We are adventurers. It takes more than killing power to be fit for this kind of work.”
“Things like working together to solve a problem rather than only fighting for yourself,” Margot says, connecting the point from earlier as if it all makes sense now.
“Yes,” Tok says. He tosses a half-peeled stick into the fire but keeps the shorter one he already peeled into his pack, choosing to save it for some weird reason. “We should get moving.”
We pack up camp and dive out into the snow-covered expanse once more. For the most part, I feel safer now that we’re surrounded by trees. But on the flip side, so are the predators. The sunlight reaches through the sparse coverage enough to light our surroundings, but not enough for me to track the time of day. It’s odd not to have that bearing or to have someone better at it to tell you how much time has passed.
After what feels like several hours of travel, there’s an odd shape in the snow up ahead. I point at it. “Is that a log or something else?”
“I don’t think that’s a log,” Zoiya responds, her voice level. “And there’s more of them.”
We reach the group—parts of steel and wood stick out of the snow, weapons that were cast aside. Four bodies lay fallen, already covered partially with snow.
I get closer, and my heart skips a beat with shock. “These are the men I came up the mountain with.”
Margot looks at me, her eyes full of sympathy. “Did you know them?”
“No. They knew each other, but I just tagged along for safety.”
“Well, I’m extra glad I’m with you all now,” Nevahl says. I get a flash of the drake attack. That encounter would not have ended the same if I was traveling on my own.
Zoiya walks closer to the bodies. She bends down next to one and brushes some of the snow aside, revealing wounds across its torso. “Bites and scratches. The mountain’s monsters killed them.”
“What else could it be?” Margot looks away from the bodies, her expression revealing deep sadness.
“If they were weapon wounds, then we’d possibly have some humanoid assailants to worry about,” she explains. “This is the better option.”
“Is it?” I ask. “Whatever it was got the best of them.”
“We should search them,” Nevahl says apologetically. “Whatever resources they had, they won’t be needing now.”
“They probably have money, since they all had sufficient weapons and armor.”
Zoiya pushes more of the snow around to search for packs or pouches. Nevahl starts doing the same on another body. “If nothing else, we can at least try and salvage their armor.”
“You’re going to strip a dead man naked?” Margot looks horrified.
“You’re literally wearing cloth in the hostile arctic, Margot,” he responds, gesturing to her wizard robes. “This is no longer a question of consent. It’s a matter of survival.”
“But…” she starts.
“I’ll carry your robes in my pack, so you can keep them,” Tok offers with a smile.
With that, Margot nods. “Okay, you’re right.”
Zoiya tosses a pouch over the body to me and moves on to the next body. “I’ll take some armor, too, if it’s intact.”
I pull open the leather and count five gold and three silver as its contents. “We are now a smidgen richer than we were before.”
“I found something,” Nevahl says louder. He grips a crumpled piece of paper, clear of any blood splatter.
“What is it?” Tok asks.
“It’s a letter. It’s short.” He reads, “To Blackthorn…I have received the package you left for me. I will ensure it gets to its intended holder. Enclosed is your reward, a sum that will persuade you to take in some time of seclusion before beginning your second task. We will be in touch. -H.”
“Well, that’s quite ominous,” Margot comments.
“Did you know about this?” he asks me.
“No idea,” I answer. “They would talk in low voices and hush up when I got too close, but I never really cared to figure out what it was about.”
“What town did you all come from?”
“Hornwick. But I don’t know if they actually started from there, or if it was just part of their travel.”
“A great reason to get to Windreach,” Zoiya says. “Seclusion.”
“This might be a curious thing to explore while we’re in town,” Nevahl says and stashes the letter in a back pocket.
Zoiya holds up a leather chest piece she managed to pull off of one of the thinnest guys. She walks around the debris, her feet sinking in the snow, to Margot holding it up to her torso.
“It’ll do,” she says, despite the piece still being obviously too big for her. It’s not good to wear loose armor, but it’d be worse to continue with no armor at all. “Just poke smaller holes in the straps to tie it tighter, so at least it’s not falling off you.”
Zoiya returns to salvage more. Margot holds the leather armor out in front of her, all the straps dangling and twisting together. Her eyebrows crinkle together, and I get the idea she’s never put anything like this on before.
“Would you like some help?” I offer. She nods and holds out the leather for me to grab. I take it from her, and she takes a deep breath, then shrugs the robe off her shoulders. The cloth shirt underneath only covers her upper arms, and goosebumps immediately appear on her bare skin. I can’t imagine how the cold must sting as she tosses the robe to Tok and then holds up her arms for the armor, her body tense and rigid. I look down at the armor, merely a shell for the torso.
“Zoiya, grab a shirt too.”
“They’re covered in blood. I didn’t think it was worth saving.”
“Ew,” Margot says, but in a breathy whisper.
“It’s needed,” I respond.
Zoiya looks up, takes one look at Margot’s bare arms, and immediately pulls the shirt from the body. Despite the disgust on her face, Margot closes her eyes and quickly puts it on over her other shirt as it’s handed to her. She sticks her arms up again, and now I slide the leather vest over her head, then start to work on fastening and tightening all the straps. It’s definitely made for a male form, not sitting properly and creasing the leather in odd ways, especially after punching in new holes with my knife, but as Zoiya said, it’ll do.
Zoiya’s strapped an armored belt around her waist and is now using one hand and her teeth to tie a set of bracers onto her forearms. Margot slides on a winter cloak Nevahl hands her and huffs with frustration as it immediately slips off her shoulders.
“I’ll grab a belt you can cinch it up with,” he offers.
“Is this not horribly morbid to anyone else?” Margot balls up the fabric and pulls it around herself. “Stealing so much from these guys?”
“That’s survival, sweetie,” I say and start walking around the scene to search the area for tracks. The smell of blood will attract creatures, and we’ve probably been here longer than it’s safe anyway.
“Not even you?” Margot continues as Nevahl hands her a rope belt, and she ties it around her waist. “You were with them for days.”
“I didn’t know any of them. It was just convenient.” I step up on a log, getting a broader scope of the area. “And to clarify, you can’t steal from dead men.”
“As wrong as it sounds, he’s right.” Nevahl stands straight after a final once-over of the bodies, nodding in confirmation that we’ve taken everything we can from them. “If we were better equipped for the conditions, it would be unnecessarily cruel, but we need what they have, and it’s unlikely there’s anyone else around who needs it more than we do.”
I hop off the log. “Even if there were, we were here first.”
“We can put our gold towards other things in town now,” Tok adds. He stands off to the side, a bitten piece of jerky pinched between two pointy nails.
Zoiya picks her bow up from the snow and re-slings it over her back, now wearing a couple more layers of padding. They, too, are sized for a larger form than her, but she’s built more muscular than Margot, and they fit her better. She starts kicking some snow over the bodies.
“They’ll be covered with the next storm,” Tok points out. “I don’t think we should take the time to bury them.”
“It’s not about them,” Zoiya explains. “It’s a small attempt to cover our traces of being here.”
“Could you get a better idea of what attacked them?” Margot asks.
“No, but I’d rather not find out the hard way.” Zoiya uses her hands to cover up the last sections, and now they just look like large mounds of snow.
I explain, “There aren’t any tracks in the area. Nothing’s come by, and the scuffle’s already been covered up.”
Nevahl brushes the snow off his gloves and sleeves. “It’s not worth trying to figure out what happened. Better to just be grateful for the extra layers and just move on before it happens to us too.”
The day passes without any more drakes or dead bodies. I occasionally detect what I think is a whiff of the blood on Margot’s new clothes as I travel behind her, but I know it’d just be worse to point it out. I’m sure she can smell it too. She’s the one who actually has to wear it. But despite all of her protests earlier, she doesn’t complain again. Perhaps the new warmth was enough to convince her.
Thankfully, we’re still in the woods where we bed down for the evening, and the tree cover is thicker than where we were this morning. I remember the base of the mountain being sparse of vegetation, at least on the city side, so I’m grateful for the natural cover while we have it. Though, I’ll be far more grateful when we get into warmer territory.
I offer to take the first watch, given that I’d prefer to sleep straight afterward rather than being woken up halfway through. The stillness of the night is eerie and even more uncomfortable now that I know what’s out there. The possibility of getting jumped at any moment is like a toxin that makes the air harder to breathe. I suppose it’s better to be the one on watch. I’m less likely to be taken off-guard when I’m the one who’s supposed to be alerted to danger first. But thoughts of what could lurk just beyond the darkness make my heart pound, and it doesn’t stop until long after the Zoiya takes over for the second watch, and I attempt to catch some sleep.
With no drakes to skin, we take off sooner in the morning than the previous day. A few hours in, the path leads us to a steep drop-off—not vertical, but too sharp to walk safely. We have rope to tie ourselves together but no climbing equipment, making it impossible to continue this same way. I don’t remember this climbing up, so we’ve either steered off the path somehow, or there are multiple branches of trails to descend. Either is likely, given that all this blasted snow makes it near impossible to tell the difference.
“Can we at least see Archdale from here?” Margot asks.
Zoiya’s on her tip-toes, trying to peer above the hills of trees. “I’m trying. There’s something way down there that might be a stone wall. Or it’s just more mountain rock.”
“If you can’t see flat open ground, you can’t see Archdale,” I remark.
“It’s going to take forever to get there,” Margot mutters.
“Not necessarily,” Zoiya says. She gets to her knees and leans slightly over the cliff edge.
“Careful!” Tok hisses.
“Cliffs like this aren’t exactly rare, so I can’t say for sure,” she says, not stepping back. “But I think I remember seeing this on my way up. It was about halfway into my climb…maybe over half. I saw it down, and to the right, so I’d have been climbing—” she points at an opposite hill, “up there.”
“And I remember seeing two hard cliff edges coming up here,” I add, crossing my arms. “They’re everywhere. This entire landscape is just more and more of the same. Memory isn’t trustworthy.”
Nevahl shrugs. “It’s better than heading somewhere random. We have to navigate around the slope anyway.”
“Shouldn’t we always be traveling down? Not up another hill?” Margot questions.
“Sometimes you have to go up to go down.” Tok smiles proudly at his aspirational statement.
Nevahl puts a hand on Tok’s shoulder. “Regardless, we should get moving. Changing course around this drop-off will have already added time to our travel.”
Zoiya leads to the way she thinks she remembers.
I had taken solace in the idea that we would be following a trodden path. Getting lost isn’t a possibility that crossed my mind, and now it might just be inevitable. The next leg of our journey will be facing the wilds with only our wits to survive.
I can’t say I’m too excited.