A Christmas story by Adam

“I still can’t figure out why in the Nine Hells they put a Mourner like you in charge,” the man said. Crouched and leaning on a dead tree, the leather of his armor was damp from the ever-present mist, and a hoarder’s dream of tools dangled from it, their straps in various states of undone. He’d had to throw it on in their flight from the camp, and was even now doing his best to secure them. “It’s enough the greedy bastards sent us out this far, but they could at least put someone in their right mind to run the damned show.”
“If you wanted people in their right minds, why’d you enlist?” The other replied, performing his own, more indelicate gear check. Water beaded on metal all over him: on the blade in his hand, on the boss of his shield, on the maille visible beneath his cloak. Staring into the mists, he shoved his sword under his armpit, and began hastily adjusting his belt, tightening it over the armor. Standing straight, he towered over the other, smaller man. He glanced down unconsciously, then jerked his head back up. “Hope someone got the chew.”
“Din’s firecrotch, the CHEW?” Adjustment complete, the first straightened. He took no notice of the faint whispering that seemed to surround both men. “If I never have to see you spit that fucking stuff out again I’ll sleep easy the rest of my life.”
“Keeps me awake. Tastes like piss, keeps me awake. Worth it.” The belt shifted as the second man pulled the chainmail up a bit, drawing a sharp intake of breath from him as it moved over a particularly sore spot on his abdomen.
“Ukyrim shit, they probably found it out here. And don’t think you’re off the hook from me. If I come back and find your sorry ass praying or throwing the damn bones or something, I’ll just tell everyone you inspired the rest of the poor simpletons here to bravely sacrifice yourselves saving the rest of us and to meet at the rendezvous point after this one.” He shook his head, “Now give me Annabelle, ya dreamy fuck.”
“‘ere. And you know why I’m in charge,” The second man withdrew a slender bundle from under his cloak, tossing it to the first. As the first unwrapped the longbow inside and began to string it, the second returned his sword to hand, then used it to gesture at one of the small clump of men huddled around a sack nearby. “Aether wants someone who- Wren, what happened to your face?”
“What are you talking about? I’m-” Wren’s look changed from strain as he strung his bow to confusion as the red line that’d flared into existence on his face spread like a fissure, and he straightened, bow falling to the side, to claw at it. Alaric took a step forward and was halfway to sheathing his blade when he heard screams behind him.
The men were disappearing, simply being sucked backward into the mist in an instant, one by one. Their screams cut off as they left sight, but Wren’s rose above them, filling Alaric’s ears. Somehow, perversely, it’s warbling synchronized with the whispering, forming a rhythmic cacophony that kept rising well beyond what one man, Alaric knew, could make.
Alaric turned back to Wren, his right hand reaching for the almost-bubbling face, as the sound stopped. And Wren’s face split in half. And a roar filled everything. And the discomfort on Alaric’s chest flared from vague pain to sharp burning and his chain mail fell away and he looked down and-
Alaric jerked awake, his heart pounding in his chest. He closed his eyes, then started again: he was comfortable. He immediately sat up, quietly feeling around for his sword as his now-open eyes adjusted again to the dark. Grabbing it and shoving off the blanket, he got as far as a low crouch before his waking mind recalled his current location. Trying to ignore his body screaming DANGER at him, he deliberately laid back down, pulling the blanket back over him, and tried to meditate on the Oath as he listened to the incidental sounds of night in a building full of people.
Much later, he realized he was still clutching his sword.


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