Gaius sank his sword into the ice and snow, collapsing beside his dropped shield to catch his breath. Most mornings he could manage well enough but the weight of the decades he bore was growing heavier each day.
“Orsinium isn’t that much farther old man,” Secondus said. “Get up or you’ll be buying everyone drinks. Again.”
Gaius growled and grumbled. He’d worked for a lot of bosses, not all of them particularly good ones, but the work was the work, and it had to get done.
With a groan he pushed himself back to his feet and looked at the mountain that loomed before them. Sharp peaks, with sharper falls everywhere the eye could see. In summer it might have been a lovely sight, but as far as Gaius could tell, summer never came to Wrothgar. The deadly trail they were following gleamed with ice that had been polished over centuries.
Not that the poor travel conditions slowed down the motley bunch of eager young things that Secondus had recruited to fill the company’s ranks.
“There’s supposed to be Frost Atronachs in these mountains!” Kaldon Dar, the youngest of the eager young things said.
“There’s no such thing as Frost Atronachs,” Zelian Dar, Kaldon’s older and less wise brother said.
The two went bounding ahead, full of the vim and vigor of youth which Gaius remembered fondly, even as he remembered how easily it could also get someone killed.
“Are there Frost Atronachs here?” Secondus asked, taking a moment to lean on his walking stick. Mountain traveling wasn’t easy on anyone. Gaius knew that from the hundreds of mountains that lurked in the decades he carried with him. Secondus should have had a sense of that too, but he was still on the cusp between the last fading light of youth and the accumulated bedrock of age.
“It’s the right weather for them,” Gaius said. “Haven’t traveled this particular road before though, so I can’t say for sure.”
“We should be careful then,” Secondus said. “There’s no coin in fighting them.”
“Tell that to the younglings,” Gaius said and rose to his feet.
Pacing was important, but letting the young things in the company steal a march on him galled Gaius. He didn’t so much mind paying for their drinks – at least not after the company had a good score – but he hated thinking of how slow the other warriors found him.
Old and tired and used up. None of them would say that to his face, but each day, as getting up meant lifting a heavier load, Gaius thought he could see the words dancing behind their eyes.
As if in confirmation of his fears, the moment he started back up the mountain, the snow under his feet shifted and sent him tumbling onto his face.
“Damn these trails are slick,” Secondus said and moved to help Gaius get back up.
Gaius felt a snarl growing in his chest. He didn’t need help. What he needed was to set his own path, preferably someplace warmer.
Watching Secondus fall on his butt shouldn’t have brought a smile to Gaius’ face. He knew that. Molag Bal’s Frosty Nether’s, he knew bosses who would fire him from the company on the spot for insubordination like that.
Secondus wasn’t that sort of the boss though. He might not have a lot of sense about the contracts he accepted. He might have gotten the majority of the company killed a few times too many, but overall he was a decent enough leader.
“Dammit,” Secondus tried to push himself back up and flopped onto the ground again. “I should have asked for more in the contract.”
“You should always ask for more,” Gaius said, and helped Secondus back up.
“The next one we take, I’m having you negotiate,” Secondus said. “Don’t know why I wasn’t doing that already.”
“Because you saw how little I was willing to sign up for,” Gaius said.
“Aye, I thought I was being clever catching you for so low a salary,” Secondus said. “I really should have thought about the percentage of the secondary loot you asked for though.”
“A percentage of the general loot only matters if you win the battle,” Gaius said.
“Well if we lose we probably won’t be in a position to be needing gold or gems now will we?” Secondus noted
“There is that,” Gaius said.
From far up the mountain path, a flurry of screams and shouts rang out.
“They found a Frost Atronach, didn’t they?” Secondus sounded neither excited nor surprised.
“More than one from the sounds of it,” Gaius said.
“Let’s get up there, I can’t lose the company again,” Secondus said.
Gaius nodded. They weren’t exactly cursed, but Secondus’ troop took on the kind of difficult, high paying jobs that tended to have a much higher fatality rate than the norm. Joining up was a great choice if you wanted to make a fortune. Living to spending that fortune was another matter.
After a perilous stretch of snow slicked ice and the path narrowing to be no wider than a man’s stance, Gaius saw a valley in the mountain open before them.
The snow field was already strewn red with the blood of the less sensible in Secondus’ company, and the rest were, indeed, fighting a pair of the giant ice monsters known as Frost Atronachs.
And a Troll Shaman.
Because those were a joy to deal with.
Secondus, only slightly brighter than those he lead, charged forward, dashing into the fray with sword and shield, trying to attract the attention of both Atronachs and the Troll.
To his credit, he succeeded!
To his detriment, he succeeded.
Gaius watched as the three monster turned from assaulting the various members of the company and focused their attention on Secondus.
With both sword and shield, Secondus parried and blocked their blows. He wove in and out between them, dodging spells and landing cuts and slashes to incapacitate them.
The other members of the company flashed and flew through the air. Young bodies leapt and spun, executing complex attacks that brought together magic and steel.
Bits of ice exploded from the Atronachs and joined the blood that was splattering the snow more with every second. Almost as quickly though the ice reformed thanks to the Shaman’s magics.
Gaius had almost reached the battle when he saw the Troll Shaman raise his hands to the sky. That, in Gaius’ experience, was never a good thing. He knew the right response was to turtle up. To raise his shield and block whatever incoming hell the Shaman was about to unleash.
But the monster was still casting.
If he could reach the beast, he could shatter the spell and save the others.
Secondus met Gaius’ eyes and nodded in understanding. Secondus was closer. All he had to do was swing his shield and the spell would be disrupted.
Instead he drew back his sword, and charged it with magic in an attempt to cleave the Troll in two.
It was the wrong play, and the company suffered for it.
The shaman completed his spell and lightning slammed into the valley, crushing Gaius and the rest of the company to the ground like hammer striking an anvil.
Darkness swallowed Gaius but not before he saw one of the Frost Atronachs run Secondus through the torso with a spike of ice the size of a tree trunk.
“Well, that’s looking pretty bad for you,” a young woman said.
“Am I dead?” Gaius asked.
“Nope,” the woman said. She was sitting on a patch of darkness within the darkness that Gaius was floating in. “You’re live bait.”
As she spoke a window formed and Gaius saw himself and the other surviving members of the company, including Kaldon and Zelian being dragged into an ice covered room. One by one the Shaman was freezing them to the wall.
“I don’t understand,” Gaius said.
“The Troll’s got the idea that having living people as hostages will draw in more living people,” the woman said. “Also, you’re tastier fresh.”
He noticed that her eyes were not human eyes. Even Dark Elves didn’t have the same cracked blood red eyes that were staring at him in the darkness.
“What do you want?” Gaius asked, concerned that a vampire’s desires were all too obvious when it came to the still living.
“To help you,” the woman said.
“Why me?” he asked.
“Because you can save them. And kill the Troll, but that’s a side benefit.”
“Me? I couldn’t even get to the battle in time to save anyone. Why not Keldon? He’s got the strength and speed I lost years ago,” Gaius said.
“He does, but he lacks something critical that you possess.” Vampiric eyes never look kindly but Gaius didn’t feel a hunger for his blood in her gaze. “This is his first battle. The pain is new and unsettling to him. He wants to be strong, and brave, but it’s so so hard when it hurts as much as what he’s feeling.”
“It’s not exactly fun for me either,” Gaius said.
“No, it’s not.” The vampire smiled revealing teeth that were somehow too dainty to be properly menacing. “But you know what you face. It’s tiring. It’s difficult. It’s not something you want to face but you know you can, because you have done so before. The Troll can defeat Keldon, and Zelian, and all of the rest of them, but he can’t beat you, because you won’t give up. You’re strength doesn’t lie in might of your arms or the speed of your blade. Not anymore. Life has taken those from you, but it has honed and tempered what’s inside you.”
“I don’t feel tempered,” Gaius said. “I feel weak, and old, and foolish. Probably delusional too.”
“That’s because you see yourself from within,” the vampire said. “Look on how others see you.”
More windows opened. In them, Gaius saw himself, but from the viewpoint of the rest of the company. He watched as the fighters who were barely more than children bounced and ran like there was no tomorrow, while he plodded along. At the end of the day though, he was still going. Making dinner for the company. Helping people get their tents set up. Taking the watch during the hard dark of the night.
They viewed him as old, but old like the mountains. A tall, sturdy presence. One who always had their back, who they could rely on like the bedrock that supported them.
Sure they knew fancy moves, and had learned things about the world that had always been outside Gaius’ purview, but that wasn’t what they looked to him for. In Gaius they had their foundation.
Secondus had seen that. He’d built the company on Gaius. A point of certainty in an uncertain world.
“Are you ready?” the vampire asked. “It’s almost your turn?”
In the first window the Shaman had sealed the last of the company in ice against the larder wall. Only Gaius was still free.
“Yes,” he said. “I must be.”
“Good. Then go with my blessing,” the woman said and kissed his forehead.
Her lips burned where they touched his flesh, and fire flashed through his veins.
The last thing he saw of her was her laughing smile as the darkness faded away and ice, and snow, and enemies returned.
The Troll growled something incoherent as Gaius pulled himself to his feet.
Probably commands to the Atronachs.
Good. Let them come.
The Shaman slashed at Gaius, foregoing magic in close quarters in favor of trying to rend flesh and tear head from shoulders.
Gaius’s armor absorbed the first blow and he caught the second on his shield, which was still bound to his wrist.
The Shaman struck over and over and Gaius met each blow in turn, pushing the monster back, away from the wall of hostages who had started to revive thanks to the clamor of the fighting.
“What happened?” Keldon asked.
“It’s Gaius!” Zelian said. “He’s still fighting! He’s fighting for us!”
The Frost Atronachs joined in, hammering Gaius from all sides. Only some of their attacks were deadly though, so Gaius gritted his teeth and bore up under the rest.
A crushing blow to the hip reminded Gaius of a wound he took in the Rift. He hadn’t been able to walk right for a week after that, but the bone deep memory of that wound gave him the reflex to roll with the hit from the Frost Atronach and stay on his feet.
A stab snuck past his shield and sliced open his cheek. The blood tasted just the same as the cut he’d received in Auridon. The high elf that gave him in the cut in Auridon hadn’t walked away from the fight and neither would the Frost Atronach.
Despite the abuse from the frost monster, Gaius’ attention was focused on the Shaman enough that when the Troll tried to conjure forth an attack, Gaius’ shield hit him right in the teeth, jamming the mystic words back into his mouth.
Little by little Gaius hacked away at the Shaman, ignoring the Frost Atronachs in favor of punishing their master.
Minutes passed and the cuts and bruises kept coming. A blow to the arm just like the one he’d taken in Stonefalls. Another to side of his head, denting his helmet like it had been dented in Eastmarch. Where armor and steel couldn’t protect him, memories wrapped him in the surety that the blows he took wouldn’t end him.
For all that though, Gaius felt his endurance flagging. He wasn’t young enough to keep up an endless fight anymore. He also wasn’t strong enough to deal the rapid series of fatal blows he needed in order to end the battle.
As his strength approached it’s utter limit though, the vampire’s gift burned within his breast and he felt his vision shift. Wrapped in an ancient magic, the world took on a strangely highlighted quality.
The Atronachs were conjurations of pure magicka. They weren’t alive or dead, just machines of force and energy.
The Shaman was different though. Lines of life ran through him. Precious, vibrant, stealable life.
Gaius held out his hand and felt the vampire’s blood in him rip the blood from Troll Shaman.
New strength flowed into Gaius as a feral smile spread across his face.
More blows rained in, but he shrugged them aside. In the Troll he had a source of life that would close his wounds as fast as they formed.
The Shaman, seeing his peril, tried for another spell, but Gaius smashed it out of him. There would be no victory in magic. At least not for the Troll.
“Where are you going to go next?” Kedorn asked, knocking the last bits of ice out of his helmet.
“I’m thinking someplace warmer would be nice,” Gaius said. “Providing we’ve got enough gold to travel on.”
“Gold’s not going to be a problem,” Zelian said. “I don’t know how many travelers the Troll waylaid but there’s about three chests of coins for each of us.”
“That’s enough to buy three houses! We could retire!” Keldorn said. “But, I mean, who wants to retire?”
“Sensible folk, that’s who,” Gaius said.
“So are you going to do that?” Zelian asked.
“Probably not,” Gaius said. “This life’s in my blood.”
“Maybe you could take over the company?” Keldorn asked.
“Sounds like most of them have had enough of this,” Gaius said. “They’re all talking about taking their share and heading home.”
“We need to do that too,” Zelian said. “Our parents won’t have to worry about the farm anymore if we give them a piece of our share.”
“But maybe we could look you up after that?” Keldorn said.
“What use would you have with an old warhorse like me?” Gaius asked.
“Are you kidding? I can’t imagine going back into the field without a guardian like you at our backs!” Keldorn said.
“Yeah, you’re the reason we want to keep adventuring,” Zelian said.
Gaius smiled. Somedays the weight of the decades he’d walked wasn’t so heavy after all. Not when he saw how much they lifted the people around him up.