Best Fantasy Books Blog http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog Reviews, discussions, giveaways, and blog about everything fantasy Sun, 29 Oct 2017 00:01:19 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.3 Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 42: Wolf Encounter http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-42-wolf-encounter/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-42-wolf-encounter/#respond Sun, 29 Oct 2017 00:01:19 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5200

Wolf Encounter

 

Zeph was beginning to think Biltrin had taken one too many knocks to the head. Who goes charging off alone into a pack of blood hungry wolves, anyway? It was always the quiet ones that ended up foaming at the mouth—and when Biltrin did talk, it was about that soldier’s code of his and for the king’s ears only.

Worse, the insanity seemed infectious. Selgrin followed Biltrin’s lead, and not a moment later Copius too broke toward the tree line.

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“No!” Daen yelled, causing Copius to pause. “Stay by the fire. We do not have the numbers to survive otherwise.”

Copius pressed his glasses up defiantly. “I will not abandon Sel.”

“I am pretty sure Sel can take care of himself.”

“Yes,” said Cahrin. “But the mission fails if Biltrin dies.”

“I hate to break this to you,” said Zeph, “but if Biltrin is meant to die, there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”

“According to your twisted beliefs. But I believe that actions matter—and so do promises.” Cahrin glared determinedly. “Jayne entrusted us to bring Biltrin before King Reginald, and we should not let the young dove down.”

Zeph imagined Jayne waiting by the window for her mother to show up as day turned into night. He’d never known his real family, but he could imagine losing a mother was not easy. “Guess our own thread length is already set. Might as well go crashing through the forest after a deranged man-at-arms than stay cringing by the fire.”

“Very well,” Daen said, though he didn’t look happy about it. “But we go as one.”

Copius led the way, torch in hand, following a trail of bent branches. Zeph shouldered through brambles that scratched his face and left his clothes smelling of pine. The skirmish they sought must have moved deep into the woods, its sounds now lost amidst the crunching of the undergrowth and snapping of twigs. It got to the point where Zeph started counting the number of times he ducked under a branch. At thirteen he realized he could hear whining and the occasional “son of Dronilowyn’s hairy stepdaughter.”

Then they broke into a clearing where gray fur spread out before them—a wall of wolf backsides pressed one against the other.

“By The One, you shall leave them be,” exclaimed Copius, driving his torch at the wolves’ hindquarters. Yelping, the beasts parted before him. He swung his flame from side to side as he rushed headlong through brambles and fur. “Aaaaaah!” he shouted, clearing a path before stumbling on a tree root and sprawling onto his chest, barely keeping hold of his torch.

“Watch it, or you’ll set the whole forest on fire,” groused Sel. He was on the ground where he’d been fending off wolves before Copius’s wild charge scattered them. Slashes and cuts formed a pattern on his good arm, and a gash on his chin dripped blood down his neck.

“Where is Biltrin?” asked Daen.

“I lost him during the fight,” replied Selgrin, rising to his feet. “Last I saw, he was over there.” He pointed with his broadsword deeper into the forest, where broken branches and flattened bushes marked someone’s passage.

Cahrin charged off in the indicated direction, the others close behind. Zeph wondered for the umpteenth time what Biltrin could have to say to King Reginald that was so important. Zeph was pretty sure he’d be more interesting company than some somber old warrior.

They had not gone far before the wolves regrouped, growling and feinting at them. Zeph took up the rear guard with his ebbing brand. The trail marking Biltrin’s passage became less pronounced, and travel slowed considerably. When the trail faded altogether, Cahrin continued to lead them in the same general direction. Either she was reading more subtle signs than Zeph could discern or blindly continuing for no other reason than because hesitation would result in certain failure.

“I’m running out of wood here,” called Zeph as he swiped his dying flame at a pair of snapping jaws. He kept his eyes peeled for any timber he could transfer the fire to, but given their constant movement, ongoing harassment, and the darkness of the forest, he was having trouble locating anything suitable. Cahrin continued to forge ahead, leaving him no choice but to use the last of his brand against the mounting number of aggressive wolves.

“Guys…” Zeph called out as he struggled to keep up. “Guys!”

A lean gray and black wolf leapt at him. Zeph fed it a mouthful of nearly extinguished torch, which the wolf ripped from his grasp. Drawing Venytier, he shuffled backward in near darkness. Copius and Daen were several lengths ahead, preoccupied with their own battlefront.

Zeph sensed more than one wolf stalking him. A dark shape leapt. Venytier thrust, splitting the attacker from shoulder to stomach. Another crashed into his side knocking him to the ground. He stabbed blindly, finding fur, feeling blood. Amidst the cries of pain and threatening growls, more wolves fell upon him. Claws shredded leather and skin.

He kicked out with his legs, rolling as he slashed, but still they came, gnawing, biting, scratching. The sheer number of wolves was overwhelming. He sent Venytier flaring out, piercing his attackers, clearing the area and briefly leaving him free. When he tried to rise, a wolf sent him back to the ground, four paws landing on his chest. Teeth dug into a wrist, and Venytier dropped from his grip. A second wolf joined in as they vied for position like combatants fighting over a meaty bone. One settled at his head, the other at his bowels. Saliva dripped onto his face, teeth pressed to skin. The wolf’s breath was putrid. Zeph retched. He had the feeling it might be the last thing he’d do.

And then the smell lifted, as did the weight of the wolves, with a yelp and scampering of paws.

It took a moment for Zeph to raise his head off the ground. He barely held off another gastric episode. He felt horrible and figured he looked worse.

The largest of the wolves was racing away, its hindquarters blackened. Zeph’s companions formed a protected arc around him.

“Are you okay?” asked Daen, offering a hand.

Zeph waited until he could draw some crisp night air before picking Venytier up and allowing himself to be pulled to a standing position. His leather armor was shredded and he had innumerable scrapes and punctures all over his body, but he didn’t seem to have any serious wounds.

“Me? I feel great,” he said. “Let’s do it again.”

“Perhaps another time. For now, we should get back to camp.” Daen pushed one of his two torches toward Zeph, who gladly accepted it. They had run out of options. The trail was lost, and the odds of stumbling upon Biltrin were about the same as finding a sleeping water elemental in the Adarak Sea. Even Cahrin nodded her assent.

“You four go,” said Selgrin. “I’m going to try tracking him by smell.” He started off deeper into the woods, his transformation already starting as a brown tail disappeared into the foliage.

The rest of the group retraced their steps, using wide swings of their torches as a warning to the nearby wolves. No more attacks came. Once Daen had singed the most aggressive of them, the rest seemed less inclined to pester their group. Though it didn’t keep Zeph from relentlessly searching the darkness for signs of the next wave of attackers.

Back at the campsite, Copius’s backpack had been ravaged. He dropped to his knees, frantically searching through the pack, mumbling something about his spare apple sausage. Fortunately, the other gear lay untouched. The campfire had shrunk in their absence to half its former size.

The wolves continued to keep their distance, but innumerable pairs of translucent yellow eyes stared at them from the shadows.

The howls continued, one mournful moan running into the next until the melody was broken by a soloist, a throaty bellow in the distance that rose above the rest. The back-and-forth continued until the wailing of the unseen wolf grew so loud that the others sounded like feeble echoes in comparison.

“I was wrong before,” said Daen as he hurriedly fed the flames the last of the fire wood. “I do not believe the wolves are waiting for a weakness but for their leader to arrive.”

If that was true, Zeph had a feeling their wait was about to come to an end.

With one final, earsplitting howl, a wolf unlike any he had ever seen before entered the firelight. It stood half again the height of even the largest of the beasts that encircled them, with black, shaggy fur like the pelt of a bear. It padded nearer the flames and snarled, showing off a mouthful of perfect, pointy teeth. Its brethren joined in.

Zeph stood shoulder to shoulder with Daen and Copius with his back hot against the campfire, as the wolves closed in. His body tensed remembering his last wolf encounter: claws raking skin and the overwhelming smell of rotting meat.

A faraway howl pierced the night. The pack hesitated, ears perked toward the stars, listening for the call to come again. It did, closer this time.

It was a challenge.

Restlessly, the wolves whined and shuffled about. Only their leader stood still among them, mouth half open, eagerly waiting.

But the challenger’s appearance was anticlimactic. Zeph had expected an even larger wolf. While this one might have rivaled any of the others in size, it was no physical match for the pack leader. The newcomer had straight brown fur, a short snout, and thick legs. Though low to the ground, its body was barrel-shaped and stout.

The rest of the wolves surrounded this new rival, preventing its retreat.

With small, purposeful steps, the two alphas traced a circle around each other, top and bottom, left and right, as if they were partners in a dance. The pack leader made several short huffs, heckling, but its rival didn’t take the bait. Instead, it continued moving, keeping its distance, eyes intent on its target as it delayed the inevitable.

Zeph swung his torch back and forth while fingering his throwing daggers. If something doesn’t happen soon

The black wolf launched itself through the air. The challenger crouched underneath, tearing a chunk of underbelly as the black wolf passed. Blood spilled, and the dance began once more. This time, the black wolf tightened its circle with each step. Once within reach, it lunged. Jaws parted and snapped shut. It came up empty. Twice more, teeth clamped on air before they were rewarded with a mouthful of fur. The brown wolf cried out. Its coat became flecked with red, and its demeanor turned wary as the dominant black wolf stalked its nimbler prey.

One thing Zeph had learned as a Carc was how to size up opponents. Were they in control of their emotions or easily angered, calculating or quick to act, dense as a piece of wood or cunning like wolves? The way these creatures moved and reacted to each other showed they were more than cunning. He could see it in their eyes—the brown’s were sad and resolute, the black’s dark and sinister. They knew exactly what they were doing and why they were doing it. But there was something almost—

The contest almost ended with a savage bite the brown wolf barely avoided. Maybe in an open field, the quickness of the challenger would have allowed it to keep away from the attacks of the pack leader. As it was, the surrounding spectators gave little room to maneuver. It was only a matter of time before those devastatingly pointed teeth connected in lethal fashion.

The brown wolf appeared to recognize this as well. The next time jaws grazed its hindquarters, it sprang back with a counterattack, catching the black wolf by surprise, connecting with a bite to the shoulder.

The pack leader jerked away, flailing, but its attacker’s grip could not be dislodged. The brown’s short snout appeared made for holding onto opponents. A rumble growl escaped the larger wolf—a threat, or maybe a promise. When its opponent refused to back down, it threw itself onto its side, sandwiching the brown wolf between its body and the ground.

The smaller wolf let go with a shrill whimper. But it was still pinned by its foe, wriggling, unable to escape. The black wolf howled triumphantly, then wrapped its mouth around the brown’s neck.

Zeph let loose with a pair of throwing daggers, catching the pack leader between ribs and eliciting a short cry. A second set of blades followed, stitching their way across the black fur and sending the pack leader writhing in the dirt.

A host of growls erupted from the pack. Teeth bared.

Copius shook his dying torch. “Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.”

“It’s not over,” said Daen.

The giant black wolf was staggering to its feet. It shook itself as if it had emerged from water, then let out a ferocious howl toward the moon.

When the combatants engaged once more, it was the challenger that appeared spent and done. The pack leader used its larger frame to dominate as they wrestled.

Zeph tore his eyes away as the other wolves momentarily surged toward them, snarling and snapping their teeth. They were sent back to their brothers yelping and smelling of burnt flesh, but they wouldn’t be held off for long. The wood of his torch was nearing its end. Behind him, the campfire had diminished to a size best for cooking meat.

He risked a glance toward the contest. There was no fight left in the smaller wolf. It lay still, ready to be finished. The pack leader sniffed at it.

“Get up,” Daen urged.

The black’s mouth parted, looking for purchase on a sensitive area when the short snout of the brown wolf darted up, latching onto the folds of its opponent’s neck. Instinctively, the black pulled way, ripping apart its own neck as the challenger kept its hold. Blood gushed. The encounter ended without a whimper.

Rising to its feet, the brown wolf gave a long, high-pitched howl. Its brethren joined in answering the call. Another howl, another chorus in response. This repeated several times until it turned and led the wolf pack into the depths of the forest.

As the sound of the retreating wolves faded, Zeph crooked his arms around his companions’ shoulders.

“I always say nothing beats a little bit of exercise before sleep.”

Copius gave a short yawn. “Except maybe a longer sleep.”

“You will have to wait on that,” said Daen. “I believe you two hold last watch.”

“Is that so?” Zeph faked an outraged expression until he couldn’t hold it in any longer. He burst out laughing through his nose, and the others joined inAfter such a tense encounter, it was what they needed—that and some good news.

Selgrin emerged from the forest with a slight limp and a grim expression.

“Nice job,” said Zeph. “For a second there, I thought you were a goner.”

Selgrin stared back in confusion.

“Weren’t you—”

It was obvious from Sel’s reaction he was not the wolf that had saved them. Apparently they had been spectators caught in a rivalry between two opposing wolves.

Cahrin filled the awkward silence. “Did you find Biltrin?”

Selgrin shook his head. “I couldn’t pick up his scent. If I’d thought to change forms earlier…”

“It is not your fault,” said Daen. “It was I who insisted we kept to the woods.”

“And who knows what would have happened if we’d stuck to the road? We might all be dead,” Selgrin said.

“Or we might be camping restfully with Biltrin, less than a day behind the king.”

“Dela spun Biltrin’s thread long before any of us were born,” said Zeph. “If he’s dead, there is nothing you could have done to change the outcome.”

“If he’s dead,” said Cahrin, “then we’ve failed our mission. Nastadra and the Western Kingdoms will go to war and Azren will have two less armies to worry about.”

The seriousness of her words struck them all. It was like Darseer Caspar said, while Dela weaved the length of the threads, the consequences were not preordained. If only Biltrin had shared his knowledge, maybe they could have completed the mission.

Selgrin brushed past Zeph on the way to his sleeping area. “Your watch.”

“So I’ve heard,” he mumbled back.

Dawn was breaking, and Zeph stretched his arm to the sky with a yawn. He felt good, all things considered. If they didn’t linger—and hundreds of angry wolves would provide ample incentive—they would leave the forest before the next nightfall.

They were packing up the last of their gear when a bedraggled Biltrin came into view. He carried his breastplate and wavered as he walked. Scratches and scabs covered his exposed body like words on a parchment.

“Biltrin!” Zeph trotted out to greet him. “You crazy old fool, I knew you’d make it back to us.” Knew might have been too strong a word—but he had been hopeful.

“Most of me did,” Biltrin replied. He looked as if he could barely stand.

“Look, we both have scratches.” Zeph pointed to his arm proudly.

“Biltrin’s got you beat, I’m afraid,” Selgrin observed drily. “Seems they used him as a claw sharpener.”

“Not a very good one, at that. Guess that’s why they stopped.” Biltrin gave a pained smile. “Look, I’ve something to say. It’s against a soldier’s honor to disregard an order, but you’ve all fought as comrades at my side. Even went after me when I ran off like some green, cockeyed recruit. You all ought to know what this business is about.”

He settled to the ground next to the dwindling fire and beckoned them over. “Now gather round, cuz I ain’t saying it twice.”

 

 

book-cover-with-spineReturn next Sunday to read Chapter 43

Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books. Enjoy a new chapter every Sunday available right here. 

Learn more about the people, magic and places of Draza along with a detailed map and history at TheBlackTrilogy.com. Questions and comments are welcome, email will@theblacktrilogy.com.

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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 41: The Onyx Stone http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-41-the-onyx-stone/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-41-the-onyx-stone/#respond Sun, 22 Oct 2017 00:01:10 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5197

Ambush

 

The acceptance of the challenge came quickly—too quickly, as far as Pa’hu was concerned.

Vergud certainly did not take the time to consult with the clan elders. It was possible he had anticipated the challenge, but even Pa’hu had not considered rocca an option until he had learned that Azren’s armies were on the move. So either Vergud was confident in his abilities to defeat Pa’hu in one-on-one battle, or the Rulakon chieftain had made plans to guarantee that Pa’hu would never arrive. The latter possibility led Pa’hu to bring a dozen of his best men with him.’

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Hoot. Hoot. The signal came down indicating that they were all clear for their ascent. The Rulakon occupied the highest regions of the mountain. With few clans willing to assault them directly, their people had flourished. During the warmer months, they hunted goats and mountain lions, and when the weather turned, they took to the caves. It was said rivers ran through the caves, providing water and fish all year long.

When the Rulakon grew restless, which by their nature was often, they sent raiding parties to the lower areas of the mountain to bring back food, furs, and boys they could mold into Rulakon warriors. Enormous uokos traveled with these raiders, making them the most feared predators of the north.

Pa’hu and his men had spent the morning climbing gentle slopes as they made their way up snow-flaked ridges. They paused to rest when they reached an area where they would have to use ropes and steel spikes to scale the mountain. Pa’hu sent up two scouts to verify all was clear.

The rest of the afternoon and the early part of the next day proceeded much the same way. It was during one of the easier hikes that Pa’hu called a halt. Up ahead he had spotted a small grove of white birch trees, their thin trunks grouped tightly together and shooting straight up to the sky, looking like a giant quiver of arrows. It was the trees’ proximity to their likely passage that gave him pause.

He caught Cawa’s eye and gave a deliberate glance toward the birch trees. The beliei was petting his giant snowy owl. Its claws clutched at Cawa’s spaulders of thick leather interwoven with feathers. Cawa made soft hooting sounds, and Tril warbled in response. The snow owl launched itself into the air, rising high above them, then circling downward toward the birch trees. The bird of prey glided there for a time before elevating itself to such a level that Pa’hu lost sight of it.

Many minutes later, Tril swooped down at them from behind to land delicately on Cawa’s shoulder. The beliei and his owl conversed in a barrage of hoots.

“Tril says there are men in those trees,” said Cawa.

“I see,” said Pa’hu. “I will need Tril to find me some friends. I have a task for them.”

“Tril would be honored. How many are needed?”

“One for each man here.”

Cawa sent his owl away, shrieking as it flew back the way they had come. The sun was above them when Tril returned with a host of other owls in tow. Tril landed on Cawa’s shoulder, while its companions gathered on the ground in front of the beliei.

“They are at your command,” said Cawa.

Pa’hu took a square canteen from his belt. Removing the lid, he stood it in front of the owls. “Have each owl take one and drop it onto the trees.”

The clansmen followed his lead. The canteens contained an oil that fire drank like a man thirsty for water—a gift to each Northerner from Azren.

The owls flew to the sky with their packages, releasing their burdens on target and allowing the liquid to spill out onto the birch trees.

“Now to higher ground,” ordered Pa’hu. He clambered up a rock that jutted from the side of the mountain. Several of his men followed him, while the rest took positions on nearby outcroppings.

Pa’hu dunked an arrowhead into the fire water. He struck the sharp edge of his flint against a piece of steel, directed the sparks to the arrow, and set it aflame. Then he let the arrow fly, arcing high in the air and landing atop the birch trees. What started as specks of burning light spread among the spiderweb of branches. He pulled out a second arrow and squatted down, allowing his bow to rest against his knee while he waited.

Once the flames stretched from one end of the grove to the other, they began to grow downward like a dragon devouring a herd of cows. The birch trees were still wet from a recent snow and resisted the army of fire. Nevertheless, with the aid of the oil, it soon promised to engulf the entire grove.

Movement at the grove’s edge caught the warrior chief’s eyes. “Ready your bows.”

His men nocked arrows in anticipation.

A single Rulakon clansman escaped the trees. He was downed by several arrows at once. Another came out, followed by a narrow stream of Rulakon warriors. The trajectory from the rock outcropping made for devastating aim on those emerging from the confines of the grove. Feathered arrows rained down on them, dropping one after another.

The flow of bodies stopped. For a moment Pa’hu believed no men were left, until his eyes caught the pale skin of a man pressing himself against a tree. He readied his bow once more, calling for his men to do the same. He squinted for a better view, tensing his arms in anticipation.

Then all at once, clansmen swarmed from their shelter. There must have been at least forty, weapons in hand and battle cries on their lips. A portion took up positions with their own bows. They were the first to be targeted and the first to die. The others were picked off as they attempted to navigate the treacherous mountainside. If one arrow was not enough, a second or third would finish the job. When it was over, not a single body was left twitching.

Several of the Capkecka warriors started to make their way down from their rock perches to collect their arrows.

“Stay,” said Pa’hu brusquely. “There are more.” His men waited in silence, bows drawn back, even as the fire continued to consume the white birch trees.

A piercing scream escaped the grove. A burning warrior stumbled out. His anguished cries were silenced by an arrow Pa’hu put mercifully between his eyes.

Pa’hu shouldered his bow and surveyed the mountain slopes littered with dead. If only there had been another way. It was one thing to kill a clan brother for survival. But this—this was senseless slaughter, worse than the conflict with the Clan of the Bear, when many hundreds of bodies had been buried in the snow before the Malduit fell into line. As he had told himself then, he still believed: the end result would be worth the price.

“I see others, Schie Bura,” said Cawa. “They hide amongst the trunks.”

He nodded. “If they have not come out by now, it means they have no plans to.”

“But why do they not surrender?” asked the beliei. “They’ll burn if they stay.”

“The Rulakon will not give themselves up.”

“Then they should go down fighting, like their clansmen. Meeting the flames—”

“Would be a braver way to die,” finished Pa’hu. “At least now they can choose their own end, rather than allow their enemy any satisfaction.” The previous Schie Bura had taught him about all the clans, from the cunning of the Dehiar to the pride of the Rulakon. And I repaid him with death.

He climbed down from the outcropping and sat cross-legged on a flat rock. “We camp here for the night.”

As they pitched tents, the stench of burnt bodies hung thick in the air, providing an unpleasant reminder of what had taken place.

The next morning, shafts of timber remained where once mighty birch trees had stood pointing toward the heavens. Among the dying embers, he could see the shapes of a proud people, their flesh blackened and peeling but their forms still standing upright in defiance.

 

book-cover-with-spineReturn next Sunday to read Chapter 42: Wolf Encounter

Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books. Enjoy a new chapter every Sunday available right here. 

Learn more about the people, magic and places of Draza along with a detailed map and history at TheBlackTrilogy.com. Questions and comments are welcome, email will@theblacktrilogy.com.

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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 40: In Search of a King http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-40-in-search-of-a-king/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-40-in-search-of-a-king/#respond Mon, 16 Oct 2017 15:45:02 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5196

In Search of a King

 

The rain started up without warning, pelting the leaves and trees, reminding Daen of the sound of waves spraying the sails of a ship. It was days like today he missed the coast of Nalesc.

They waited inside the forest’s edge for Zeph’s return, past the range of droplets scything in at a slant. The dense foliage of the Huntsman Woods provided them a safe and dry shelter. Once serving as the hunting ground for the high king, centuries of war had left the woods overgrown and not easily traversed.

  Is Tendrils of Darkness new to you? Click here to go to Chapter 1.

Zeph had met up with them in Delween, where they were forced to abandon their horses in order to avoid capture. PIKE had eyes everywhere—in cities, towns, among the militia, and in shops and taverns. Merchant guards hid within patrols from the Western Kingdoms. The roads were watched closely, with checkpoints becoming ever more prevalent the nearer they came to the Western Kingdoms capital of Dalfeyn. It was there that King Reginald made his home at Castle Aurinbor, with walls as thick as a wagon and window slits to match the number of archers in his army.

As they neared the capital, Daen felt things had become both more urgent and dangerous. Zeph had gone ahead to find out the whereabouts of King Reginald. The success of their mission hinged on gaining Biltrin an audience with the king.

Daen was scanning for signs of trouble when he spotted Zeph jogging back toward them. He arrived with ragged breath and a more ragged cloak—which he claimed was part of his disguise. “For a second there, I thought I was spotted. Ran the length of a tourney field before I realized I wasn’t the one they were chasing. Then I just kept at it the rest of the way, trying to outdistance the rain.” His clothes were soaked through, and his hair was plastered to his head. Water cascaded down his chin as if he were drooling profusely.

“How did that work out for you?” asked Cahrin.

“I think I beat the brunt of the storm.”

Daen suppressed a grin. “Good for you. Now tell us, what did you discover about the king?”

“It turns out we came all this way for nothing. King Reginald is no longer at the castle. He left for Dirn’s Outpost yesterday. Some merchant gathering.”

“That would be the Spring Merchant Faire,” Selgrin said. “Taking the journey was once the equivalent of a religious pilgrimage for the dogar.” His face took on that wistful expression he saved for speaking of yesteryear.

“That could be to our advantage,” said Daen.

Selgrin scratched at his stump for what seemed like the hundredth time since they had entered the forest. “I guess anything is better than trying to get past six feet of stone and an army of steel. Still, the roads to Dirn’s Outpost will be doubly guarded with the king on them.”

“It appears our only option is to cut through the woods and approach Dirn’s Outpost from one of the back routes,” said Daen, pulling out a weathered map from his backpack.

Selgrin pointed. “We could use the Old Road.”

“That should work. Let us make the most of the remaining light.”

Copius looked horrified. “You can’t mean for us to stay here past dark?”

“I see no safer option.”

“But the wolves…”

Daen was at a loss and looking for an explanation.

“You don’t see them now,” said Selgrin in answer to the questioning stare, “but at night they roam in packs, even spilling out into neighboring farms. It’s been a huge nuisance to the area. The kingdom has tried to bring in poachers to clear it, but the wolves are breeding faster than they can be rounded up.”

“I should think we stand a better chance with wolves than armed warriors.”

“I’ll go toe to toe against either,” Zeph chimed in. “Personally, I’m fed up with all this dodging around.”

Copius’s voice was small. “I’m really not very fond of wolves.”

“I’ve no love for the mongrels myself,” said Selgrin, “but Daen has a point—it’s them or the patrols.”

“What do you say?” Daen asked Biltrin, figuring he alone knew what was at stake.

“Your lives, your choice,” he answered plainly.

“It is our lives, isn’t it?” said Cahrin. “I for one would like to know exactly what we’re risking them for.”

It had been a reoccurring theme since they left Meritosn. Now that they were without leadership from the Spider Sect, some of them—including Cahrin—felt they should be informed about the details only Biltrin knew.

Biltrin folded his arms across his chest. “My words are for the king’s ears alone.”

“And what if you don’t make it to the king? Should there be no one to relay your message?”

“I live by a soldier’s code. Never rat out a kinsmen, an order is an order, and all that. Us old soldiers don’t got much but our code.”

Daen hoped to avoid another confrontation on the subject. “Every moment we stand around arguing, we waste precious time. I propose we go through the forest and aim to make Dirn’s Outpost not long after the king. Unless anyone has a better idea—and we have already determined that following the road is not a better idea—we should proceed with haste.”

When no one spoke up, he marched ahead, reasonably sure the rest would follow.

They spent the last hours before dark pushing through the Huntsman Woods at a hurried pace to find an adequate area to camp. Daen had hoped to find some small game for dinner along the way, but presumably any creature with enough meat to fight over had long since been eradicated. By the firelight, they ate unappetizing provisions to the sound of baying wolves.

It was getting late when Daen squeezed between Sel and Zeph as they huddled around the campfire. Norweegee lounged unmoving on his side in front of Cahrin, resembling a balled-up tunic. It seemed one of the drawbacks of not breathing was that no one could tell if he were dead or simply resting—no one but Cahrin, who commented that the excitement of the day had taken a toll on the “poor little guy” as she patted his flaccid skin.

“I can see your point,” said Zeph. “All that lying around inside your cloak pocket must be real exhausting.”

“There’s more to it than that. Every time I worry, he worries. I can sense it.”

“You sure he’s not going to scorch himself so close to the flames?”

“He’s quite capable of knowing how far to lay from a campfire,” she said, though Daen noted a look of mild concern cross her features.

“I guess if you’re wrong, at least we’ll have a warm cooked meal. Never had xaffel before.”

Zeph avoided her angry eyes by directing his attention on Venytier. He had been rubbing the blade down with a damp cloth since they had finished eating. As someone who made his living listening for the slightest of noises, Daen wasn’t sure what was more annoying, the squeak of the cloth against Zeph’s blade or the incessant howling of the wolves that echoed from one end of the woods to the other.

“Nice knife,” remarked Selgrin.

Zeph smiled like a proud father. “Venytier can slice through steel like its ripened fruit. Have you ever seen such a beaut?” He held the dagger up so the firelight glinted off its metallic green surface.

“It’s got a name?”

“And why shouldn’t she? Venytier has done more than you to keep me upright in battle.”

“If that’s the bar to clear, I’m surprised you haven’t gone and named your boots.”

“Maybe I just haven’t figured out something appropriate.”

“Try Left and Right,” said Daen to the groans of his comrades.

Selgrin shook his head disapprovingly. “You’re a strange one, Zeph Greymoon.”

“I don’t think it is so unusual to name a weapon that protects one’s very life,” said Cahrin.

Zeph inclined his head at the rare compliment from the Northerner. “Thank you, my dear. Should I pass, Venytier will be yours.”

“Though,” Cahrin went on, “my clan names their weapons with the likes of Doom Bringer, Head Cleaver, or Eye-Gouger. What is the meaning of Venytier?”

“It’s the name of a woman, if you must know.”

“I don’t think I would flee from a blade with such a name.”

At last finished with his work, Zeph sheathed the dagger. “Oh, I do believe it could be as frightening as Blood Sprayer and all that. In fact, I know of a woman whose tongue is sharper than the finest of blades.”

“You have a point. A strong woman will always have the upper hand when it comes to men. But ‘Venytier’? That strikes me as a name given to a gaestina, a tenderfoot.” She continued after receiving blank stares. “One that does not take well to the roughness of the rocks they walk upon or the harshness of the mountain they climb.”

“A tenderfoot?” Zeph appeared supremely offended. “I’m just glad she was sheathed and did not have to hear that.”

Cahrin crawled over, her eyes glinting mischievous in the firelight. She did not stop until her flawless face was a finger’s breadth from the assassin’s. Her slender arm reached down, sliding along Zeph’s midsection before stopping at Venytier’s hilt. Plucking the dagger from its home, she brought it to her lips. “Venytier is the name of a tenderfoot, is what I said.”

She let the dagger fall to the ground.

Zeph picked up the blade and wiped it down feverishly. “For that, witch, Venytier will never be yours. Instead, she’ll pass to Daen.” He turned to Daen to make his point clear. “If I go, Venytier will belong to you.”

Daen did his best to hide his amusement with a serious tone. “You are not going to die any time soon, Zeph. Besides, I should rather stick to my hand axe in battle.”

“But someone has to take care of her.”

“I am sure your goddess Dela already has a plan for that. Now enough of this. We should get some sleep. Cahrin and I will take the first watch, Selgrin and Biltrin second, and the final watch goes to you and Cope.”

With a sour look at Cahrin, Zeph sheathed Venytier and made his bed for the night. Once he was fast asleep, Daen caught Cahrin pulling him ever so carefully, blanket and all, as near to the fire as she dared. “Now we will see who wakes up cooked,” she whispered. Score one for the Northerner.

By the time first watch had ended, Daen was exhausted. It had been a long day of travel. They had started out before the sun had fully risen, and it had been nearly dark by the time they made camp. It didn’t take long to succumb to much-needed sleep. He might have stayed that way until morning if it hadn’t been for the piercing howls of the wolves.

He rose, picking his axe off the ground. Zeph snored lightly nearby, eyes closed; he could sleep through anything. Cahrin and Copius lay on the other side of the campfire, breathing quietly in slumber.

But where are Selgrin and Biltrin? It was their watch. Even if one of them had needed to leave the confines of the camp, the other should still be here guarding their sleep. Daen heard leaves crunching softly from the camp’s perimeter.

Someone was coming.

She emerged from the trees looking so thin she was almost transparent. It unnerved Daen and at the same time comforted him, since now it all made sense. She approached close enough for him to see the freckles on her nose.

“I can’t stick around forever,” Elise said. The green stone of her necklace flashed in the moonlight.

“Where are you going to go?”

“Away.”

“You mean for good?”

Elise shrugged. Her face held a rare touch of melancholy. “Maybe there is a place for me among the gods.”

“You know I have never believed in them. Even less so now.”

“Then you better not join me, you hear? Not for a while, anyway.”

A cacophony of wolf howls came in their direction. A part of him registered them as the only sounds he wasn’t imagining. He sighed. “Why am I so tortured?”

“It’s no fun if I tell.”

“I’ll show you fun.” He grabbed at her despite himself, assuming his hands would move through her, hoping differently. Instead, she simply wasn’t there. Her body reappeared several feet away.

“Stop that, you silly, or you’ll end up like me.”

She had a point. When he had sleepwalked in Camere, he’d woken up with a knife pressed to his back. Who knew what might happen this time? He could be in the middle of the forest by now, a step away from breaking his ankle or worse. So what was he to do, force Elise from his memories for the sake of his own safety and sanity? Maybe it was daft, but he was not ready to do that. King Brelin was right. What life was there without one’s love?

“You can’t keep it up,” Elise continued, “or I’ll pull you down with me. And then you’ll be sorry.” She started skipping in a circle around him.

Daen twisted to keep her in sight. “You only think I would be sorry. Maybe that is what I want, to follow you into oblivion. And who would care otherwise?”

“One… two… three… four… five… six…” She counted in rhythm to her strides. “How many kingdoms could they fix?”

The nursery rhyme was familiar.

“The tides are coming but the tides are far, can the six that were become the six that are?”

Daen remembered Etta had said something similar: For only when the tides are at their strongest can the six that were become the six that are. “Those are the words of a seer. What do they mean?”

“How would I know?” Elise skipped faster.

He tried to decipher the old Carc’s words. Protector of the two-legged stag—that was him. To stop what should not be, speak with which does not breathe, to learn what ceases to be forgotten. That second part—could Elise be “who does not breathe”?

“Tell me what ceases to be forgotten.” He stood in her path, but she just made a larger circle.

“Now who’s using the words of a seer?”

He was losing his patience. “How about—”

“Oh, come on,” she whined.

The baying of the wolves picked up, threatening to drown out his next words.

That was the last thing he remembered before being woken up.

His eyes snapped open to the anxious face of Biltrin and the sound of wolves howling from every direction. The others were already donning their armor and strapping on their weapons. Daen helped Selgrin and Cahrin pile their gear toward the center of camp and feed the fire all but a handful of their gathered timber. They stoked it until the flames rose high into the night.

By this time, the wolves sounded as if they were hiding in the trees all around them, just beyond sight. Their elongated moans reminded Daen of the calls of the undead. Norweegee burrowed his head into Cahrin’s cloak pocket, trembling so profusely that her entire robes shook.

Daen brought a torch to the camp’s perimeter, casting illumination into the wailing darkness. Now their enemy could be seen—wolves not by the tens but by the hundreds. The light reflected off glossy eyes and salivating muzzles.

Switching hands with the torch, Daen pulled out his axe. “How many do you think, Zeph?”

“More than I can count.”

“Still counting with just your fingers and toes?” Cahrin said.

“If I used the hairs on my head, I wouldn’t have enough.”

“Wh-wh-what d-do you suppose they are waiting for?” Copius’s eyes darted from one side of the campsite to the other.

Selgrin stepped near to get a better look. “Why does any hunter hesitate? Those wolves are waiting until victory is certain.”

“Likely for the flames of our campfire to ebb,” Daen said.

“Perhaps,” said Cahrin. “But you’d think they would be testing our boundaries at least.”

Biltrin made a break for the wolves, roaring as he flailed his sword above his head. He disappeared into darkness, only the sounds of a skirmish marking his position.

Teeth snapped; foliage cracked. The sounds moved deeper into the forest.

“We have to do something,” said Cahrin.

Daen shook his head. It would be madness to go in after him. Their best bet was to wait out the night by the campfire.

A host of growls shook the trees, followed by a cry—a human cry.

Selgrin took a step, turning his broadsword over in his hand. “You know, he’s right. Soldiers follow a code, starting with you never let a comrade die in battle alone.”

And then he charged headlong into the darkness after Biltrin.

 

book-cover-with-spineReturn next Sunday to read Chapter 41: Ambush

Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books. Enjoy a new chapter every Sunday available right here. 

Learn more about the people, magic and places of Draza along with a detailed map and history at TheBlackTrilogy.com. Questions and comments are welcome, email will@theblacktrilogy.com.

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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 39: The Onyx Stone http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-39-the-onyx-stone/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-39-the-onyx-stone/#respond Sat, 23 Sep 2017 12:01:24 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5156

The Onyx Stone

 

 

Three days. That’s how long it had been since Raven had met up with the kobold Gyste and his strange alabaster-skinned companions.

And still I search for answers.

Gyste kept hidden the secrets he knew, revealing only what was blatantly obvious. Yes, the Afflicted One was planning to make a move that would reveal to all of Draza he was alive—but of course, no word on what the move was. And the when was the most closely guarded secret of all. He gave the appearance of being an open book, but his words were filled with partial truths. Gyste even maintained they’d once been friends—acquaintances, more likely, though Raven could not shake the fact that this servant of Azren was the first person he had met since his escape who treated him like a comrade.

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More telling were his own observations. He learned that the creatures that accompanied Gyste, referred to as bulstan, were inhumanly strong. They broke thick branches for tinder with their bare hands. Drazan Common was the only language they seemed to speak, and even that barely, with guttural accents and broken sentences.

As they traveled south back through No Man’s Land to the rolling hills of Durfolk, the kobold’s anxiety appeared to grow. Every evening just before the sun descended into the horizon, a black crow arrived from the north. Its mouth held a pebble wrapped with a parchment message. Gyste would exchange the pebble with one of his own before sending the crow away. From the apprehensive way in which the kobold waited for these messages, they likely came from Azren himself. Each evening, Gyste became increasingly agitated, leading Raven to conclude things were not going as planned.

This morning, Gyste’s angst beaded from him like sweat. He kicked at the dirt, spoke sharply to the bulstan, and made the grequin tea so hastily it reminded Raven of bad mead.

After one sip, Raven spit the green liquid back out. “Maybe tonight, I will make the tea.”

Gyste turned with a perturbed look before breaking into a toothy grin. “Certainly. I think that would do us both some good.” He emptied the contents of his cup onto the grass.

“I wish to ask a question,” ventured Raven, taking advantage of Gyste’s lighter mood.

“You know you can ask me anything.”

But what answers will your slippery tongue provide? “How did I escape Azren’s domain?”

“Escape?” Gyste’s familiar, good-natured chuckle followed. “By the time you left us, you were no longer Azren’s prisoner. You were a guest. We were surprised when you were simply gone one day—all but the master. He seemed to know you would leave, almost as if he had planned it himself.”

Raven’s swords flew out of their scabbards and crossed at Gyste’s neck. “Your lies do not work with me.”

Two of the bulstan rushed to their master’s aid. Gyste seemed unperturbed, holding up a staying hand as if to say this was between Raven and him alone. “You cannot fight the truth forever.”

“You mean the half-truths.” A part of Raven knew there was something to what Gyste said, yet he would not accept that he had ever truly been a servant of Azren.

A bulstan gave a long, low whistle from the top of a hill.

“You must excuse me,” said Gyste, pushing away the blades at his neck. “We will have plenty of time to reminisce later.” He walked up the hill and exchanged a few hushed words with the bulstan before returning and climbing onto his mount. “Stay put,” he instructed Raven before setting off at a canter.

Raven had no intention of staying put. He had accompanied the servant of Azren rather than killing him with the idea that there would be useful information to be had. This might prove his best opportunity to learn more.

He started to follow the kobold, but the bulstan sentries blocked his path. He sat down and waited until Gyste’s outline had blended against the clouds, then used an illusion to mask his movements. When he rose to make his escape, the hulking warriors were there once again. His magic had no effect on them.

He considered forcing their consent but dismissed the idea. If all four drew weapons against him, that could be troublesome.

He went inside the tent and waited for a time before peeking out. The bulstan were no longer looking in his direction. Instead, they had taken their usual posts, equidistant and facing away from the campsite.

He got on his hands and knees and slunk from the tent. He abhorred the feeling of crawling; before he had been held captive by Azren, he was sure this would have been beneath him. Like begging for his life—he had done that, too. Azren had laughed at him cruelly, though the face of the Afflicted One always escaped him.

Of course he knew his past life was just that, another life he could never return to. The current Raven would do whatever it took: killing an innocent, betraying a comrade, or in this case crawling like a worm if it brought him a hair’s width closer to destroying Azren. But will I ever get close enough?

He concentrated on snuffing out any noise he made as he wriggled forward. It was such a simple illusion. The bulstan did not expect there to be a sound, so it should have been easy, especially on such weak minds. But therein was the problem. The bulstan were part men and part something else entirely. Raven had no control over the minds of animals or creatures bereft of intelligent thought.

He pushed the illusion, willing it to take hold. As he passed the perimeter, one bulstan turned partially toward him. Raven focused his attention on that bulstan alone, conveying the illusion that no one was around. His head pounded from the effort. The veins in his temples pulsed. He felt blood dripping from his nose. Finally, the bulstan turned back in the other direction.

Raven resumed his crawl until he reached his horse. He untied his mount from the tree and hoisted himself into the saddle, all the while trying to maintain the illusion on the sentries. It was not enough. A bulstan noticed him and moaned for the others. Raven wasted no time. He dug his heels in and his horse leapt away, thundering up a hill and down the other side.

He soon spotted two figures in the distance. He masked his approach, halting his mount close enough to hear what was being said. Gyste was talking to an agitated dogar.

“Incompetent fool.” The dogar pulled a hand through his slick, black hair. “I warned the master that trusting him to complete the mission was a mistake.”

“So you did,” agreed Gyste. “Though to his credit, things might have been different if it weren’t for the arrival of the gems. If they had been taken care of some time ago, as were your instructions, we would not be having these problems.”

“It’s not my fault that the Council is made up of a bunch of simpletons. I showered them with gold crowns, and yet they failed to dispose of even one of the cockroaches.” He sneered. “Talking about miserable attempts, blaming me isn’t going to divert attention from Kreeb’s foul-up at Einor. His uselessness is a reflection on all your kind.”

“I see you too are no stranger to the blame game, Belatreeg.”

The dogar’s face contorted furiously. “I told you not to call me that.”

“Very well.” Raven heard the amusement in Gyste’s voice. “But I believe your assessment is incorrect. Kreeb had some success in his dealings. And lest you not forget, it is our kind, as you so aptly put it, that has been with the master since the beginning.”

Belatreeg was still seething. “Azren cares little about loyalty. His favors are curried by deeds alone, my turnip-faced friend. In that, it is I who has done the most for his cause.”

Gyste looked about to give a heated retort when he ceded the contest for diplomatic ends. “It is not in our master’s interest to squabble. Let us finish our business and be off.”

“As you wish.” Belatreeg’s eyes shone with satisfaction at having won the battle of words.

“The master—” Raven’s horse whinnied and Gyste hesitated, despite being under the illusion’s influence. “The master wishes to know how things are proceeding with the war.”

“Splendidly, I would say. Prince Peldrin dotes on my words like an awestruck younger brother. In confidence, I told the prince that Azren was alive, and when I suggested how useful an alliance might be, he was amenable to the idea. It is King Reginald who concerns me. It seems as though a dislike of Azren has been ingrained in him from a young age.”

It seemed Azren’s meddling ran deeper than Raven suspected.

“And what is being done about your concerns?” asked Gyste

“There is nothing I can do. Prince Peldrin would not consider a coup against his father—cowardly twerp. My own men would question a direct attack against the king. An assassin is always a possibility, but who would take on such an assignment? And besides, with war at hand, King Reginald is never alone.”

“You have a suggestion, I gather?”

“I have convinced both the prince and his father to attend the Spring Merchant Faire at Dirn’s Outpost. Away from his castle, the king will be vulnerable. When the time is right, I can draw him outside the faireground. If Azren were to spare some bulstan, I could arrange for His Majesty to be at the right place at the right time. Once he is out of the way, I shall bend the prince—or, should I say, King Peldrin—to my will.”

“Interesting,” said Gyste. “I’ll write to the master your plan and meet back with you at the Merchant Faire.”

Raven was hauled from his mount and thrown to the ground. The air left his lungs. Two white hands picked him up and held him in place.

Gyste turned toward the commotion. “And just when I thought we could trust each other.”

He’s disappointed in me. An odd sensation ran through Raven he couldn’t quite identify. He choked—the smell of the bulstan reminded him of rotting food caught between teeth.

Belatreeg drew his weapon. “It’s him, the Onyx Stone, the most deadly of the gems!”

“Put it away,” said Gyste. “He is under control.”

“Orders are to kill him on sight.” Belatreeg advanced with his sword extended.

Raven tried to pull free, but the bulstan’s hold was unyielding.

Gyste stepped between them. “Orders are open to interpretation. Sheathe your weapon. I’m sure we can come to a mutual understanding.”

“You have been keeping him.” It was an accusation and a veiled threat—Raven’s very presence endangered Gyste.

“I see now that was a mistake.”

“He cannot be trusted with what he knows.” The dogar took a hasty swing at Gyste, more to get him to move than with intent to injure. Gyste jumped back, leaving Raven vulnerable. The bulstan’s grip was so secure, he might as well have been a tree trunk.

“Protect, my bulstan,” commanded Gyste.

Raven was cast face first to the grass. A moment later, the bulstan ripped Belatreeg’s blade from his grasp as if he were a child who had picked up a dangerous item.

“That’s enough,” said Gyste. “I think we are done for today.”

“The master will hear about this,” Belatreeg said.

“He certainly will. I’m already imagining your punishment for the attack on me.” Gyste’s eyes flashed dangerously in a way Raven had not seen before. “Go, and I may decide to keep this incident to myself.”

The dogar appeared shaken. “It’s like you said before, there should be no petty squabbles between us.”

“Await me at Dirn’s Outpost.” Gyste’s voice was still harsh.

“Of course. You know where to find me.” He changed his form as he turned away.

Raven did not get a good look before he was slung over the bulstan’s shoulder, but what he saw of Belatreeg’s new identity was enough to determine who he really was, or at least who others thought him to be. Raven was pleased. Being called the Onyx Stone was intriguing, but a dogar with the ear of the prince of the Western Kingdoms was the type of information he’d been waiting for, the kind he could use to his advantage.

Gyste did not share his sense of triumph. In fact, Raven had never seen him in such a way. His red complexion had deepened, the anger in his voice barely held in check as he spoke to the bulstan. “Smother, my bulstan.”

White, sightless eyes fixed Raven with an unemotional stare.

“I’m sorry, Raven,” said Gyste, “but you’ve left me no other choice.”

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 40: In Search of a King

 

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Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books. Enjoy a new chapter every Sunday available right here. 

Learn more about the people, magic and places of Draza along with a detailed map and history at TheBlackTrilogy.com. Questions and comments are welcome, email will@theblacktrilogy.com.

 

 

 

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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 38: The Many Eyes of the Ilpith http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-38-the-many-eyes-of-the-ilpith/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-38-the-many-eyes-of-the-ilpith/#respond Sat, 16 Sep 2017 12:01:26 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5157

The Many Eyes of the Ilpith

 

 

Mud and rocks swelled up from the ground, seemingly in slow motion, giving Cahrin time to choose between life and revenge. She skipped across the rising mound without regret or trepidation. Packed dirt climbed to the ceiling behind her, closing off escape, sealing her with her enemies.

One apprentice summoner against a pack of enemies who look as if they’re sculpted out of limestone. It was almost laughable.

Norweegee buried himself in her pocket, shivering against more than the cold.

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No turning back now. There could have been a hundred of them for all she cared. She only needed to kill the coward in the charcoal cloak. And she knew just the nightmare for the job.

She took a deep, calming breath. Her aggressors continued to focus on penetrating the mud barrier, smashing it with their weapons and charging into it with little success. A portion of the wall decimated by a two-fisted strike reformed before its attacker could take advantage of the opening.

A self-gratifying smile creased her face. By the time they turned their attention to her, it would be far too late.

Raising her fingers, she drew the first symbols of summoning an ilpith. Now that Master Ulfin was gone, she was the sole living person who knew how. The precise gestures and true name had been handed down from master to pupil for hundreds of years. The only documented summoning was burned into the annals of summoner lore: …pieces torn and strewn on the sand as if nature had laid waste to a building of bodies… The words had somehow carved themselves into her mind.

The faint outlines of the ilpith took form, so large it spanned the entire area from the mud wall to the entrance of the farmhouse. Even now, still a shell of its existence, the ilpith reeked of hate. The effect was not in full force, but it was enough to sap her strength, to cause her heart to spike.

She focused on making one intricate sign after another, while a distant part of her sought out Kreeb. There he was, behind the largest of the creatures, shielding himself from the fray. She would make sure he did not escape. His hooded head was pointing toward her watching her work. Then to her delight she saw him start in dread as the ilpith began to solidify.

The farmhouse swam with hundreds of maws filled with jagged teeth attached to a bulbous mass of spiked skin. The ilpith had no legs to speak of; it would simply grope its way from one victim to the next, a devouring blanket of death, midnight-black save for red, raisin-shaped eyes that shone all over its body like bloody stars in a sky.

She registered Kreeb’s sibilant voice calling for his warriors to redirect their attacks, to kill her before the summoning was complete. It was too late for them. And too late for me. She pushed the thought from her mind. It didn’t matter. Even after her death, the ilpith would remain for a time, enough to ensure all her enemies would be dead.

The winged albino snapped its head in her direction. Another of the creatures came charging at her with a spear. But it was the white warrior nearest her, pounding the wall with two fists, that could ruin everything.

Just a few more moments…

The ilpith was nearly opaque now, its crimson eyes looking eager, mouthfuls of teeth chomping amidst drool and black tongues. The wave of malevolence it emitted threatened to overcome her. She fought through it, tracing the symbols, ignoring all else.

The point of a spear sped toward her.

Fists rose and fell.

She tensed, anticipating the steel entering her body and white knuckles caving in her head. It was almost too much to ignore as she made the very last sign.

Something grabbed Cahrin from behind—hands made of mud—and pulled her through the wall to the other side. The spear of the charging creature hit only compacted dirt, and its brother pounded nothing but air. Her focus was shattered, and the summoning came to an end a quarter of a stroke before its completion.

The nearly materialized ilpith began to fade back to nothingness. A final surge of bloodthirsty longing escaped its being, washing over those present in a chilling farewell.

Cahrin tried to wriggle free to continue what she had started, but the meddling hands held her fast and then threw her down a hole. She landed on top of Copius. A moment later, the opening was gone.

“C’mon, both of you.” Selgrin said. “It’s time to go.”

The rest of the group was already marching ahead through the underground passage, torches in hand. She picked herself up. She had no other choice but to follow, but not without giving Selgrin a scathing glare as she passed, feeling compelled to vent her anger at someone.

They maintained a quick pace in single file through the narrow tunnel. In all her years with the ghasiv, she had never grown accustomed to spending her days in enclosed structures, and this was many times worse. The tunnel looked recently dug, with dirt still crumbling from walls ready to collapse at any moment. When Jayne finally halted and bored through the ceiling at what seemed a random location, no one was more relieved than Cahrin.

They climbed out to a lightly wooded area where four horses were tied up and waiting. Biltrin rode solo, Jayne doubled up with Daen, and Sel rode with Copius. That left Cahrin with Zeph.

Maybe another time when she wasn’t so angry, she would have welcomed the verbal sparring. Not tonight. With two of their comrades left behind and who knew what lay ahead, no one was in the mood for talk except Zeph. One word earned him an elbow in the gut for his trouble. After that, he stayed quiet all the way to the inn at Meritosn that evening.

 

*                                  *                                  *

 

Zeph was not surprised to wake up alone in his bedroom. Daen always seemed to get up with the break of dawn—some sentinel thing. Copius’s stomach had its own internal clock, and you just never knew with Sel.

He found them in the next room milling about with slack faces and dead eyes—they looked like Zeph felt: wounded physically and in spirit. Though they had rescued the queen of Durfolk, they had failed to save the king of Embia, or to stop the dogar from embracing Azren. The white creature from the farmhouse had punished them, forcing them to retreat, to leave their comrades behind and hole up in this nothing of a town licking their wounds.

Only Jayne seemed to have a sense of purpose among them, staring determinedly out the window.

“How long has she been like that?” asked Zeph after a time.

“As usual, you’re the last out of bed and first to satisfy his curiosity,” Cahrin said from the top bunk.

He ignored the comment. “Anyone at least know what she’s up to?”

“I suspect she is looking for someone,” said Daen, straight-faced.

“Thanks for clearing that up.” He didn’t like being left in the dark—or being stuck in one place. He approached Jayne. “Are you going to tell us the plan or continue to lead us around by our noses?”

“Zeph Greymoon.” Cahrin hopped down from the bed to confront him. “That’s the most callous thing I’ve heard from you—which says a lot. The young dove just lost her mother, mind you.”

Jayne turned to face Cahrin. “What do you know of it? Did you watch her die?”

All other conversation in the room hushed.

“No. No, I did not. But I have seen enough of war to know how false hope can torture one’s spirit. What your mother did, Jayne, was very brave. She understood—we all understood—the chance of her escaping was slim.”

“She’s very resilient, my mother,” Jayne said, her chin raised defiantly.

“If she is anything like you, I bet the fire of her spirit is hard to put out.”

Jayne turned back to the window. “We are supposed to meet there.” She pointed down at the plaza, where a circular fountain stood on a stone dais with a dirt path separating it from an array of shops selling soaps, candles, produce, and sacks of grains. The area was thick with townsfolk. She continued to stare out the window, not saying anything more.

The quiet that followed was too much for Zeph. “How long are we going to wait?”

A painful stomp to his toes from Cahrin suggested she did not approve of the question or timing, but Jayne didn’t seem to mind. “She will be here today, or not at all.”

At least they wouldn’t be stuck at the inn for very long. They could use some time to rejuvenate, but for Azren to send his creatures this far from his domain was brazen. They weren’t safe staying in one place. Not here. Not anywhere.

They took turns going downstairs to order food while Jayne continued her vigilance, like a duty-bound knight watching the plaza below. Though no one said it, a question hung heavy among them: Who was Biltrin, and why was he so valuable to the Spider Sect? If only they hadn’t promised Elandra there would be no questions asked. The lack of detail didn’t bother Zeph as much as the lack of a defined end to their mission. Instead, he was perfectly bored, unsure what he should be doing or when he should be doing it.

He relaxed by sitting on the bottom bunk, sharpening his throwing daggers, and trying to engage the others in conversation.

“Hey, Cahrin,” he called. She sat on the floor with a bowl on her lap. “I wanted to say thanks for, you know, putting an arrow in Baldy back at the farmhouse.”

“We all do our part,” she said between spoonfuls of soup. “I was simply helping out where it was needed most.”

He bristled. “You never miss a chance, do you?”

“Why Zeph, whatever do you mean?” she replied in a syrupy voice.

“You know, insulting me. Acting like I was having the worst time of it when it was you who was worried about me.”

Worried? Since—”

“Hey!” Jayne put her face to the window. “I see her.”

They all crammed together. Sure enough, Zeph spotted a figure in an ill-fitting mustard cloak sitting on a bench outside the plaza.

“That is not your mother,” said Daen, stepping away from the tangle vying for a glimpse.

Copius seconded the opinion, then tripped over Sel’s foot. “That person is much bigger than she is,” he said from the floor.

“Whoever it is, I’m going to rip the cloak from their dead body,” said Jayne.

Sel helped Copius up. “Sheor he—may just be trying to get our attention.”

“Or to draw us out into the open,” said Daen. “Zeph, do you want to go down and investigate?”

“Is Dela the mother of all seamstresses?” He had been itching for the chance to spell the waiting game.

“Wear your hood. If you sense trouble, signal by pulling it back.”

“And if there is trouble, where will we meet next?”

“Remember that place in Delween where we holed up for three nights?”

Zeph let out a low chuckle. “You mean where the women were forced to serve mead while we did nothing but play dice in the back room?”

“Yes, that one.”

“If you two are done,” Cahrin said, “this mead-serving wench has had about enough.”

“I know the place,” Zeph said, wiping the smile from his face. He’d almost forgotten Cahrin had been on that mission as well.

“If it goes badly, we shall meet there in the morning, two days from now,” Daen said.

 

 

The sun was low in the sky as Zeph slipped into the plaza. He meandered from one store to the next, working his way toward the bench. When his target’s attention appeared diverted, he sidled up on an adjacent seat. A mustard-hooded head turned toward him, but not before he had Venytier readied.

“How—” The voice was Neved’s, cut short by the pressure of Zeph’s blade.

“Where’s Tessa?” asked Zeph.

“What do you think you’re doing? We’re all on the same side here.”

He backed Venytier away, still close enough that Neved would be dead before she could draw against him.

“That’s better.” She rested a hand on the pommel of her sword. “Tes was injured. She sent me ahead to the meet. Do you have Biltrin?”

Zeph ignored the question. “How did you get out of there unscathed?”

“I have my wounds—a bruise the size of Taleon Lake on my backside, for one. I was lucky I wasn’t put down for good. When I came to, Tes was bending over me. I found out later that they were only after Biltrin. Ignored me completely. The only reason Tes got hurt was that she tried to stop them from following all of you. Lucky for her—lucky for both of us—they’re single-minded creatures, whatever they are.”

Zeph was satisfied enough to sheath his blade. “So what now?”

“I was told to bring you to Tes and to make certain you had Biltrin. You do have him, don’t you?”

“Sure. What is it with that guy, anyway?”

“He’s important, that’s all,” said Neved. “Where is everyone staying?”

Zeph hesitated. He had every reason to trust Neved, and yet his instinct was telling him something was amiss. She was too determined to get her hands on the prize. And while her story was plausible, it was not without holes. Why would Tessa give her the mustard cloak? Certainly they would have recognized Neved without it. And why hadn’t she asked about Jayne’s well-being?

Rising from his seat, he led the way, pausing after a hundred paces to wrap an arm around Neved’s shoulder. “You know, I hear small towns such as these have not mastered the art of watering down the ale, if you catch my drift. Maybe after we get you to Biltrin…”

Neved jerked away, dislodging his casual embrace. He expected this and allowed himself to be spun partially around by her action to get a quick look behind them. They were being followed—that or a handful of rather large townsfolk happened to be leaving the plaza at the same time.

He pulled back his hood. “You’ll never believe where we stashed Biltrin.”

 

Section Break

 

“He’s given the signal,” Daen announced. He reached for his backpack. Biltrin and Selgrin were already by the door. Only Jayne ignored him as she continued to stare transfixed out the window.

“Jayne… ?”

“I’m the leader here,” she replied, “and I say we’re staying.”

“Listen, your mother is not coming back—ever.” A pained look crossed Jayne’s face and Daen wished he hadn’t led with that. “Even if she is alive, we cannot stay here and risk Biltrin being captured.”

“I’m tired of all of you telling me my mother’s dead. Leave if you want. Biltrin and I are waiting here until the day’s end.”

Copius swallowed the last bite of his pie before kneeling down before their young leader. “Only The One knows if she lives or looks down on us from Ascouth, but understand this: Tessa Rivenwal risked her life so we could continue. I—I don’t think she would have wanted you to…”—he struggled for the words—“put the mission aside for her sake.”

Jayne cast her eyes downward at the sincere monk kneeling before her. “But if I don’t stay,” she said in barely more than a whisper, “no one else will be here for her.”

Cahrin gave her a reassuring smile. “My father would say our toughest decisions are when our heart is at odds with our mind.”

A tense silence followed. Daen weighed his options should Jayne insist they remain: follow orders, or drag her away kicking and screaming, for the good of the mission.

“Go,” Jayne said through a cracking voice, “all of you, and take Biltrin with you. He must speak with King Reginald.” She turned to Cahrin. “This mission is yours now. Don’t waste another minute. Biltrin may be the only person in Draza who can stop the war between the Western Kingdoms and Nastadra.”

 

Section Break

 

Zeph led Neved away from the inn, strolling casually as he made small talk. “So when did you join the Spider Sect?”

“Four years ago. I was just a soldier for Nastadra before then.” She kept getting ahead of him as she tried unsuccessfully to force his pace. “How about you? Did you get recruited recently, or is Sect business in your blood?”

“In my blood?” He was unsure what she was getting at.

“I noticed your thumb bears the mark of a web. The only other time I’ve seen something similar was on another Sect member.”

Zeph stared at his thumb in disbelief. He’d never really thought his birthmark resembled a web or imagined that it might lead to some clandestine organization. “Who was she?” he blurted more anxiously than intended.

Neved’s brow furrowed; the edge of town was up ahead. “Where are they all holed up, anyway?”

The time for small talk was over. Darkness had fallen, giving him the edge he needed. He lowered his voice. “I think we’re being followed.”

She gave a cursory look behind them. “What makes you so sure?”

“Let’s just say I’m not a peddler Elandra picked up off the street.” He started down the last narrow alleyway he could find. “I was with the Alliance before this.”

She bristled. “Alliance, eh? Traitorous scum.”

“Look who’s talking.” Venytier was out in a flash, its point digging into the back of her neck. Grabbing her shoulder with the other hand, he turned them both around to face their pursuers.

“This is the second time you have held a blade to my neck this night.”

“The first time was for practice. Now, tell your friends to show themselves.”

“Corth!” Neved called. “Your clumsy attempts to follow us have been noted.”

A half-dozen men strolling at various distances stopped in their tracks.

“Put down your weapon,” commanded the closest one. He swept back his cape, revealing a belted sword and steel plate armor with an insignia of a golden pike. PIKE merchant guards. Things were getting more interesting by the moment.

“Can’t do it,” he called back.

The men fanned out, blocking all escape routes other than the alleyway behind Zeph.

“Tell us where Biltrin is and I promise none of your friends will be hurt,” said Neved. “You have no skin in this. Get out while you can.”

Zeph twisted Venytier and felt her jerk in pain. He leaned close and spoke in her ear. “What really happened to Tessa?”

“She died—and so shall you, if you keep this up.”

“Oh, I’ll die all right, but you’re not going to have any say in it. Now, take off the cloak. You don’t deserve to wear it.”

“You’re not serious?”

The PIKE guardsmen shuffled forward, testing their boundaries.

Zeph brought his dagger across to the front of her neck. “Back!” he shouted.

They stopped but did not retreat.

“The cloak.”

“Very well.” She pulled off the left shoulder and then the right, swatting his hand away as she did so and spinning to face him. Admittedly she was in a better tactical position, but the fact remained that she held no weapon. And when she went for the dagger at her belt, he slashed her throat.

She covered the opening with her hand; blood still ran between her fingers and spilled to the ground at an alarming rate.

The guardsmen pressed forward. Zeph backpedaled into the alley, grabbing Neved by her jerkin and pulling her with him. “No farther!” he shouted, waving Venytier. Blood leaked from Neved like overflowing wine; she had thirty moments to live at best.

“Tell me about the other with my birthmark,” he said.

“Save me,” she whispered.

He grabbed three throwing daggers with his other hand and began backing away. There was no saving Neved.

“Stay where you are,” he threatened the PIKE soldiers.

He was halfway down the alley when Neved fell to her knees. Not long now. The PIKE guardsmen sensed this as well and came rushing after him. He let loose with the throwing daggers, more for cover than anything. The blades soared over Neved’s head and caused her comrades to pause in their tracks.

Zeph turned and ran. He cleared the alley at a full sprint, pelting past a row of closed shops and around a corner tavern. He leapt up, grabbed hold of the roof, and lifted himself up. He stayed low as the sounds of pursuit rushed past him in two directions, then moved to a large chimney billowing smoke from the tavern’s dining area. Twisted into the shadows of the chimney, he was invisible from anywhere more than a few feet away. Here he would rest while the guardsmen chased their tails.

By the time he crawled from his hiding place, the sun was just peeking above the horizon. He made his way through the streets of Meristosn, moving from the shadows of one building to the next until finally there were no buildings ahead of him, only roads.

 

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 39: The Onyx Stone

 

book-cover-with-spine

 

Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books. Enjoy a new chapter every Sunday available right here. 

Learn more about the people, magic and places of Draza along with a detailed map and history at TheBlackTrilogy.com. Questions and comments are welcome, email will@theblacktrilogy.com.

 

 

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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 37: Northerner Alliances http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-37-northerner-alliances/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-37-northerner-alliances/#respond Sat, 09 Sep 2017 12:01:01 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5146

Northerner Alliances

 

Pa’hu paced from one end of the canvas tent to the other, thinking on all that had been accomplished since he had taken over the role of Schie Bura of the Capkecka clan. Four of the five Northerner clans had been united under his leadership, some by diplomacy, others by subjugation. Petty squabbles had been set aside, replaced by a common goal: the creation of a battle-ready army.

His people had spent the past two summers preparing for war. Mounds of weapons and armor had been fashioned and cartfuls of arrows fletched as they amassed the tools for a campaign against the humans of central and southern Draza—the ghasiv, the Undeserving. Their unified effort stood unprecedented in Northerner history. They did this for revenge, and to take the ghasiv’s plentiful land for their own. But mostly, Pa’hu had chosen this path to stop the bloodshed between clans.

  Is Tendrils of Darkness new to you? Click here to go to Chapter 1.

Pa’hu had no idea it would take so much effort to bend the will of his people to this one task. Resentment on all sides was as evident as birthmarks on the skin. Those chomping at the bit called the preparation for war a wasted effort or even a stalling tactic of the cowardly. After all, the clans had been raiding each other for years without this type of stockpiling. Others opposed leaving their homeland for a fistful of blood and a promise of a better life.

Pa’hu directed the war efforts knowing that sacrifices would be made for his ambitions. Resources spent on armaments meant less for acquiring the food and furs they needed to hunker down for the winter. Frostbite and famine were on the rise, as was death.

Many perished in skirmishes between the clans. Pa’hu did not wish this. Every dead clansman meant one fewer to fight for the cause.

It would have been easier if the weaker clans hadn’t been so intractable. But like a pack of wild dogs, a leader could only be decided by a contest where some combatants ended up brutally wounded before falling into line. Pa’hu had to make an example of the Clan of the Bear to show the others his strength.

But even that was not enough for some. He was forced to compromise and form treaties. In one instance, he agreed to take on the daughter of the Dehiar’s chieftain to make peace. Pa’hu would control both tribes while Baesa, the chieftain’s daughter, would be anointed his matrari in charge of his household. Their children would include the next chieftain. Traditionally, the role of matrari was assumed by the chieftain’s dirksa, but Pa’hu insisted that Baesa would neither take on the role of dirksa nor share his tent. His decision on this matter was unmoving, and a treaty was eventually signed despite more than a little ill will.

Pa’hu pulled his hand through wavy black hair in frustration. Time was wearing thin, or so he’d been warned by the messenger of Azren, and yet he was still missing an integral piece of the puzzle. While he was now considered the war chieftain for four of the Northerner clans, the Rulakon had been steadfast in their resolve to remain independent. They would prefer the blood be squeezed from their bodies than swear fealty to another clan.

Pa’hu had hoped this rare opportunity would cause them to reconsider. When reason failed, he chose to simply wait for someone other than the pigheaded Vergud to take control of the Rulakon clan. Their leader was anointed through a series of physical contests, and Vergud had held onto the post for the past three years. With time slipping by, Pa’hu’s options were narrowing.

He squatted down and smoothed out the dirt in front of him. His scouts kept him informed which area of the mountains the Rulakon were currently roaming. Drawing a crude map, Pa’hu planned out how he could crush the Rulakon between his forces. He held little doubt his four united clans would win. It was the casualties that worried him. Much like their clan animal, the uoko, the Rulakon warriors were fierce, and their numbers blackened the peaks of Ked’coon. Bloodshed would be heavy, and the conflict would diminish what could be an overwhelming combined force.

Pa’hu brushed away the dirt map in frustration. His only other option was to call for a rocca, a one-on-one battle between himself and Vergud. It was a risky ploy. Vergud would never agree to a neutral site. Pa’hu would have to go to him, and there was no guarantee he would arrive safely. Even if Pa’hu made it to the rocca alive, victory was far from certain. Vergud was an unbridled beast who had never been defeated in battle.

Pa’hu rose to his feet with determination in his heart. To leave his people in the hands of Vergud would be an abomination. But to command the four clans into battle against the Rulakon was unthinkable.

He stepped through the flap of his tent. Outside were several warriors keeping watch and his clan’s beliei, a middle-aged warrior with owl wings woven into the leather armor that protected his shoulders. The beliei communicated with his clan animal as if he himself was of the same species.

“Cawa,” Pa’hu called out. The beliei turned to him. “I have a message to be delivered to Vergud. I issue him a challenge of rocca. To the victor shall go the control of all five clans.”

“Yes, Schie Bura,” he said with obedience. Cawa hooted, and a snowy white owl dropped from the sky and landed on his outstretched arm. Cawa scrawled symbols on a small piece of animal skin and then rolled it around the owl’s leg, sending the winged servant on its mission with an exchange of hoots and trills. “It is done.”

Pa’hu watched the snowy owl flap toward the tallest mountain peaks. Before he could further reflect on his decision, the owl had disappeared into the light of the sun.

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 38: The Many Eyes of the Ilpith

 

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Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books. Enjoy a new chapter every Sunday available right here. 

Learn more about the people, magic and places of Draza along with a detailed map and history at TheBlackTrilogy.com. Questions and comments are welcome, email will@theblacktrilogy.com.

 

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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 36: Song of the Gems http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-36-song-of-the-gems/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-36-song-of-the-gems/#respond Sun, 03 Sep 2017 02:33:41 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5144 Song of the Gems

 

The sparrow came in tilted, favoring a wing, before transforming into a one-handed dogar.

Daen didn’t wait for him to catch his breath. “Well?” he prompted as loudly as he dared.

“Not much to tell,” Selgrin replied, stretching the arm he injured in the fight with Haril. After several precautionary days in a sling, it appeared nearly healed. “With such heavy fog, I had trouble making out my own beak.”

  Is Tendrils of Darkness new to you? Click here to go to Chapter 1.

“Did you spot the farmhouse?” Zeph yanked an apple off a nearby tree and bit into it loudly, to Daen’s annoyance.

“There was a structure in that direction.” Selgrin motioned to the northwest. “But it could have been the workshop of a candlestick maker as easily as a farmhouse.”

The assignment was to travel to an abandoned farmhouse a league past Abei, a small city on the outskirts of the Western Kingdoms, and find Tessa Rivenwal. She would have something in her possession for them to keep safe. While Daen trusted Elandra, he felt a bitter sense of familiarity. Despite their philosophical differences, the missions given by the Alliance and the Spider Sect were equally short on details.

“We shall take our chances that there are no candlestick makers out here,” he said drily. “Everyone—and I mean Zeph—concentrate on not attracting any undue attention. We can ill afford to be careless.”

“C’mon, Daen, we’re in the middle of nowhere,” Zeph said softly, avoiding further rebuke. “Don’t tell me you’re honestly bracing for trouble.”

“Does the lack of a single sentry this close to our destination not concern you?”

“Come to think of it, that is strange—unless you consider they aren’t expecting company. Or maybe they’re just keeping a low profile. I for one would be highly suspicious of any farmhouse sporting a sentry.”

“Boys,” scolded Cahrin in a harsh whisper, “standing here bickering is getting us nowhere. Now carry on before I sic Norweegee on the two of you.”

The xaffel sat on her shoulder with arms crossed over his pot belly, not looking particularly deadly. Cahrin glared at them until they started forward. Zeph, still sour, gave Norweegee a tough guy look as he passed, at which the pink familiar yawned.

They waded through a river of fog, careful to heed twisted roots that made it look as though the trees were threatening to break free from their earthen homes. Daen couldn’t help but be reminded of the mission on which they had lost Elise. It had been much like this, shrouded in fog and eerily still, or as Zeph had commented earlier, “so quiet you could hear a dung beetle passing gas.”

Navigating the landscape, he allowed his thoughts to percolate on the scroll Cahrin and Zeph had found. To be fair, it was only a minstrel’s ballad, much of it faded beyond comprehension, but the legible parts brought new insight on the prophesies of Kalendistrafous. He’d kept the scroll that first night to study it. Recalling the words, he turned them over in his mind, trying to divine some greater meaning.

 

So declared the soothsayer, one day in light of sun,

The Gems of Tazanjia will end the Afflicted One.

First and foremost we shall seek the stone of ever green.

Understand the bite it gives is much more than its sheen.

Be certain that the opal is next you must attain.

Each color that’s reflected, is more for it to gain.

From ocean’s depths the sapphire shall surface to appear,

Despite the tides of its past, it will protect what’s dear.

The cat’s eye glints uniquely, no other’s quite the same,

Each side shall seek its bidding, make sure to stake your claim.

With the diamond’s beauty comes a chill that’s icy cold,

But the powers held within will surely warm the soul.

Blackest of the gems you’ll find to be the onyx stone,

Brought forth from darkest shadows to make Azren-kind atone.

 

But it was the minstrel’s chorus that kept him up nights thinking.

 

The past is wrong. The past is right.

What will the fortunes tell?

Only that the future holds what the past repels.

 

So it was written, six times on the scroll. The middle verses were faded, possibly from facing the sun for too long. But it ended as one might expect any heroic ballad.

 

Finally, with gems brought forth, has Azren met his match.

Whatever fiendish plans he has will never fully hatch.

Death to Azren and his cohorts, to all opposing force.

In this final revelation shall nature run its course.

 

Except that as a prophecy, it failed miserably. The gems never revealed themselves, and Azren certainly wasn’t dead.

Interrupting his ruminations came a voice out of the roiling mist.

Danger

He halted, gripping the hilt of his hand axe as he scanned the area. The others paused in their steps, looking questioningly at him. Apparently no one else had heard the warning, and now he wondered if it had been a figment of his imagination.

They continued until reaching a long structure with a straw-thatched roof. Daen caught shapes moving in the distance, flickering in the moonlight.

“Do you see that?” he whispered.

“Looks like a farmhouse to me,” responded Zeph.

“Behind it. Something is out there.”

Daen continued to stare into the mist.

Hurry… The word slithered into his ears, but from where—and whom? It was a woman’s voice, but not Elise’s.

And then the movement was gone.

He dropped his gaze. “Let us continue.”

They crept along the outside wall of the farmhouse until they reached a door. Daen scanned their surroundings, searching the wisps of fog and darkened shadows. A knot tightened in the pit of his stomach. Something lay in wait just beyond his sight. Every instinct he had honed told him so.

“What is it?” asked Cahrin. She must have sensed his worry.

But he could not say for certain. A feeling, more than anything else, as if he were moments away from being swallowed up whole. The hairs on the back of his neck stiffened, which did not happen often.

“Inside,” he ordered.

The door opened easily and the group crowded into a small room containing the stump of a tree stuck with an axe, its blade stained with dry blood. Another door barred their entrance into the farmhouse. This one would not budge.

“Anyone in there?” Daen said in a hushed tone. He pressed his ear to the door and caught the distinct sound of a sword being unsheathed.

Zeph was not so reluctant to raise his voice. “We’ve come to speak with Tessa Rivenwal.”

The outer door swung open—the wind, or it hadn’t been closed firmly. Without any way to secure it, the five of them could be easily cornered by an approaching enemy.

“Where’s Rose?” someone called from inside the farmhouse.

“There’s no Rose here,” Zeph answered.

“Elandra sent us,” added Daen.

Behind the door, an argument appeared to take place.

“No one comes in without Rose.”

“They know Elandra and they know my name, that’s good enough for me.”

“It could be a trap.”

“Let them in, Neved.”

The door opened enough for the point of a two-handed sword to stick through. “Let’s see all of you,” said a woman through the gap. “They look all right,” she admitted.

The door opened wider to allow them entry. Their greeter had short brown hair and wide shoulders, and she was as tall as any of them. In her scale mail, she could have been mistaken for a young man.

“Whaddaya think, Tes?” Her accent was Nastadran, the only region of Draza where the women were known as equals to men with the sword.

“I think,” replied a woman who had dark hair with streaks of gray, “that Elandra has followed through on her promise.” Turning to the visitors, she smiled warmly.

“We are glad to have found you,” said Daen. He meant it. If they’d been stuck outside much longer, he was not sure what would have transpired.

“Let me make introductions. I am Tessa. Our Nastadran protector is Neved. This is Jayne.” She motioned to a leather-clad woman who by her resemblance could have been her daughter. “And our brave, battle-worn soldier goes by the name of Biltrin. He’s a corporal in the Western Kingdoms militia.” With grime-layered breeches and a dented breastplate, he looked like he had seen recent action. “We are all so pleased to have you here,” she concluded.

Neved shut and barred the door with three separate slabs of wood while Daen introduced their group. Biltrin eyed them warily from beneath thick, frost-colored brows.

“Now if we could just figure out what happened to Rose,” said an exasperated Tessa. “That girl is always abandoning her post for one reason or another.”

“You can’t blame her,” said Jayne defensively. “This waiting around wasn’t what she signed up for when joining the Sect.”

“I suppose we can’t afford to be picky with recruits these days,” lamented Tessa.

Neved gave them a once-over, pausing critically at Selgrin. “You can say that again,” she said, adding a snort. “They aren’t even requiring them to be women.”

“They certainly made an exception in your case,” Selgrin shot back.

Before Neved could reply, they heard the closing of the outside door to the barn. “And there she is,” Tessa announced. “Rose, dear!”

This was followed by the shuffling of feet—too many feet, to Daen’s ears. Thump. Something pounded at the door.

“Rose?” Tessa started toward the entrance.

Copius stepped in front of her.

“Allow me, my lady,” he said before calling out, “Who goes there?”

The door shuddered violently in answer.

Protect… Daen heard a feminine whisper. He readied his crossbow. The others followed suit, drawing back bows and brandishing melee weapons.

There was no sound for several long moments, their collective breath held in hope the intruders had given up or left. Then came a crunch as a white-skinned knuckle burst through the door.

Jayne gasped, and the arrow she held trembled.

“Not yet,” cautioned Daen. Cahrin stood next to him with her own owl-feathered arrows at the ready.

The pallid hand jerked left to right, clearing the wood around it. A savage jab from Neved’s sword sent the appendage retreating. Neved made another thrust through the torn-out opening and almost lost her weapon when something pulled at it from the other side. She yanked it back, staggering on her heels before she righted herself.

“Hold…” Daen said. “Let them come to us.”

The next blow to the door connected with such force that the top third splintered inwards and the reinforcement bar split apart. A creature the color of a skull and just as bald pushed through the decimated doorway, punching out the remains.

“Now,” said Daen, letting loose a bolt that punctured the torso of the intruder.

Two arrows followed with a flutter and a thud.

The creature appeared to take little notice of the wounds, as it marched forward. Neved met it with a stab to its stomach. Crimson blood stained its midsection, contrasting fiercely with its stark white skin. Its hand lashed out and caught Neved on the forehead, driving her backward.

Daen stared at the enemy in perplexity. He’d never seen anything like it. At first glance, it appeared to be a beast of incredible strength and fortitude, similar to the troll Zeph and Cahrin had described to him. Yet it was proportioned like a man, muscled and wide-bodied. It carried itself like a man, too. Its face, though ugly, contained aspects that were undoubtedly humanoid, but its eyes begot something that was neither man nor beast—devoid of pupils, pure white ovals that stared out listlessly rather than savagely.

“Die, demon!” cried Neved, charging forward. She swung her two-handed sword and decapitated the creature. Blood oozed from the neck like sludge moving down a sandy beach.

But where one fell, more of the white-skinned warriors streamed into the barn, bringing a musty, sour smell with them. Daen shouldered his crossbow and drew forth his hand axe. Stepping forward, he met the first with a swift cut that drove it back against the wall. His opponent swung two short swords, one slicing across its body right to left, shoulder to knee. The second sword thrust outward powerfully. Daen parried; his arm shook. The other blade grazed him, leaving a bloody trail on his forearm. He countered with a flurry of hacks and chops, all turned away by a clash of steel.

His heart pounded. The white warrior looked like a creature of nature, but it acted more like the weapons it held: strong, dangerous, and unemotional. Who sent these things and what are they after? A blade missed him below the armpit; another slammed his buckler and was deflected into his pauldrons. He was lucky to have his head still intact.

Two columns of mud and rock erupted from beneath them, enveloping the creature’s arms and securing them in packed earth, leaving it defenseless.

Daen raised an axe. The creature’s face contorted gruesomely as it strained against its dirt shackles. A white arm broke free and a short sword flashed forward, slitting Daen’s brow. He sprang back, watching more of the hardened mud wrap around his adversary. Not waiting this time, he let his axe fall, splitting the creature forehead to chin and spraying him with sticky red blood.

A glance behind found Tessa weaving her fingers to a soft chant. She would need protection while she continued to invoke the earth to their aid. Daen moved toward her and Jayne, while keeping an eye on the others in their own duels.

Zeph darted in and out, extending Venytier toward openings in his adversary’s defenses. Its chalky-white skin became stained with red gashes, though the injuries did not appear to slow it. Dodging a powerful chop, Zeph carved a happy face across his enemy’s stomach, a move that should have sent guts spilling out the opening. Blood escaped from the wound, but no entrails followed.

Maintaining the front line, Selgrin traded strokes with a mace-wielding monstrosity. Neither appeared to be gaining the upper hand as blows and counterblows were parried or dodged.

Another of the white-skinned creatures thundered toward Copius and Biltrin.

“Keep Biltrin safe, my fine monk,” called Tessa. “He is the reason we’re all here.”

Daen snapped his head toward Tessa. What did she mean by that?

Copius lodged a sandal under the chin of his assailant before it could bring its two-handed battle axe to bear. Then he delivered a whip of a back-fist to the nose, followed by a bone-crunching kick to the midsection. The creature landed more than a body’s length away. Without hesitation, it rose to its feet.

Daen saw Zeph now on the ground, rolling to dodge a curved sword. An owl-feathered arrow punctured the creature’s chest, disrupting its next attack. Zeph sprang to his feet, bringing Venytier up in a backhanded slash. The blade split the creature’s pallid throat, ending its life before it hit the ground.

Towering above the skirmish came another of the alabaster humanoids, wearing a silver ring around its neck and a long cloak that sprayed out from its body. Behind it emerged a small figure in gray.

The servant of Azren. The one who had eluded Daen in Yridark and had unleashed the troll on King Hybris.

Cahrin caught site of her nemesis and redirected her bow. She aimed briefly, too briefly, and let an arrow fly. It arced high, succeeding only in advertising her intentions. The moment was lost. The figure in gray stepped back into the protective cover of his silver-ringed comrade.

With a holler, Neved charged at the enormous creature, swinging her two-handed sword overhead like a set of bolas before bringing it across its cloaked shoulders.

Crack. The blade stopped as if it hit stone. A giant white hand tore the clasp of the cloak free, revealing glossy black wings framed by finger-length spikes that looked like spires on a castle.

Neved made to swing again. This time, the creature reacted in a blur, massive hands picking her up, throwing her against the nearest wall.

More of the white creatures poured in, threatening to overrun them. Two flanked Zeph. Another joined the fight against Copius. Daen moved forward to engage a pair carrying polearms: a glaive, and a halberd.

Escape… the whisperer urged him.

Why am I the only one hearing and seeing things? It had started with his visions of Elise. Then the mystery voice in Yridark, the rustling chatter on the way to Feralintero. And now here. What is happening to me?

He arced his axe at the glaive-wielding enemy. He had no intention of scoring a hit, not yet, only to keep it at bay, to give him time to think. Any normal foe would have backed away. This creature stepped into the axe, taking it on the chest, then sliced its glaive downward. Daen escaped only by leaving his own axe embedded.

No time to think. His heart rattled in his chest He could not hold out against both at once. They were too strong, too swift, too ready to sacrifice themselves for his death. When the glaive swung again, he ducked, then closed in so the polearms would have trouble targeting him.

He reached his hand axe, pulled it free, and went on the offensive. Short hacks sheared pallid skin. Before long, his boots sloshed in a pool of red ooze. He stayed near one enemy denying its comrade a clear shot. That didn’t seem to matter. The other swung its halberd carelessly, slicing the neck of its ally in the first attack, tearing off its shoulder in the next. The mutilated glaive-bearer fell into Daen, knocking him over and landing on top of him. He was pinned to the ground, fending off methodical chops from above using the corpse of his enemy as a shield.

A white arm was severed. The back was sliced through. Still the attacks kept coming, neither angry nor precise but constant. He pushed what was left of the body off him. The next attack spun his hand axe away. The one after dented his buckler.

Hurry. Protect. Escape. Whatever he thought he was hearing was meaningless in the face of these creatures of Azren.

“Fall back!” Tessa cried from behind him.

A halberd came down for a finishing blow as a wall of dirt rose to intercept it. The wall surged upward, decapitating the halberd as it created a barrier between the defenders and their adversaries.

“What the—” he heard Zeph call as the ground erupted in front of him, sending chunks of dirt in all directions. The wall did not stop until it spanned the length of the farmhouse from floor to ceiling, protecting them from their enemy, keeping them safe for now.

Daen rose in a daze. He staggered over to pick up his axe. The others looked as battered as he felt. Copius had a nasty gash on his head, and blood caked Zeph’s leather. But where is Cahrin?

“We must retreat!” shouted Tessa. A motion of her hand opened the dirt near their feet revealing a passageway below them.

A section of the wall shattered, exposing the creature hammering through. Tessa curled her fingers one at a time, conjuring fresh mud to take its place. “Go now!”

Jayne blinked back tears and jumped through the opening. Daen shepherded the others down behind her. Bullied and beaten, they left grudgingly, reluctant to abandon Cahrin, but knowing they had no other choice.

Tessa was tiring. The wall separating them from their enemy was breaking down in places. One moment there stood a barrier of hardened soil, the next a shattered pile of dirt.

Daen spotted Cahrin behind a collapsed wall before it built back up. “Make me an opening so I can retrieve her.”

“No time,” Tessa said without looking at him.

“I will not leave her. I am a sentinel, a trained protector.”

“You must protect Biltrin now.”

Copius stood with Daen, staring at the chaotic scene. He too appeared resolute in staying. A flick of Tessa’s hand caused the ground to crumble beneath them.

“No.” Daen clutched for solid dirt as he and Copius slid precipitously downward with the rest.

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 37: Northerner Alliances

 

book-cover-with-spine

 

Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books. Enjoy a new chapter every Sunday available right here. 

Learn more about the people, magic and places of Draza along with a detailed map and history at TheBlackTrilogy.com. Questions and comments are welcome, email will@theblacktrilogy.com.

 

 

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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 35: The Hunted http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-35-the-hunted/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-35-the-hunted/#respond Sat, 26 Aug 2017 12:01:14 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5129

The Hunted

 

 

For as long as Raven could remember, a constant cold emanated from his core that even a southern summer could not warm. But tonight’s unforgiving chill was a reminder that things could be worse. Already, his cheeks and nose felt as if they were made of frozen water and would shatter if a stray rock blew into his scarred face. His gloved hands were stiff and frigid, making the tiniest act difficult. It was not a night to be out riding.

  Is Tendrils of Darkness new to you? Click here to go to Chapter 1.

The farther north Raven traveled, the more oppressive the climate. While most of the snow had melted away, frozen white patches still clung to parched fissures in the ground. It was desolate terrain he rode through, lonely terrain known merely as No Man’s Land. Ahead, Raven could see the towering homeland of the Northerners, mountains upon icy mountains that stretched to the starlit sky. Angling west would bring him to Azren’s domain.

Despite the frigid conditions, Raven felt elation building like a chunk of brimstone warming his soul. He had spent more than a year with the Alliance biding his time, waiting to hear word of Azren’s reemergence. And now his wait was over. He had only to discover Azren’s next move, then thwart whatever careful plans were laid out, forcing him out in the open, making him exposed, vulnerable.

Something near to a smile played across Raven’s lips at the thought of delivering a blow so violent, so filled with hatred that Azren would never rise again. He breathed in the crisp night air and imagined what it would be like to finally rid Draza of its most foul blemish. Would anyone appreciate his accomplishment, or would his efforts go unrecognized, like so many tortured screams of his past? That was the problem with pawns: they could be saved or they could be slaves, and they’d scarcely realize how it came to be.

His first order of business was to track down Kreeb. Raven had made this decision back when he was piecing stones together with the king. He realized that his past was like one of the broken stones, and Kreeb knew where the pieces went. Learning about his time in captivity could be the key to defeating Azren.

Tonight bore testament to Raven’s deep determination. It was perilous to be riding in the dark—foolish even—and bone-chillingly miserable. However, he could not stop now, drawn like a moth to a small light in the distance. He had been traveling north for two days under the assumption that Kreeb would be making his way back to his master’s domain. More than halfway through the barren landscape of No Man’s Land, he spotted light, the first sign of another traveler since he had started out. He pushed on past dark, expecting to arrive at a campfire after a short ride. Instead, it had taken most of the night to reach a massive bonfire sitting atop a bluff.

He tied his horse to a glossy white stone that looked like a giant tooth buried in the earth, then started his climb. Though the bluff was steep, he found plenty of areas to catch a handhold or foothold. The worst of it was the coldness of the rocks, which permeated his gloves and rendered his hands numb. Fortunately it was not a long exercise, and by the time he neared the top, he could feel the warmth of the fire and hear its crackling flames contending with the howling wind.

Up close, he better appreciated the bonfire’s impressive stature: twice the length of a man laid head to toe and at least thirty feet high, with tendrils shooting out from innumerable locations. But what made his usual steady pulse quicken was the bonfire’s attendant, Kreeb, huddled inside his charcoal cloak.

The little man’s high-pitched, sibilant voice still rang in Raven’s ears: What an unexpected surprise. The master will be pleased. He doubted very much that the master would express joy once Raven was done with his servant.

First, he would pry from Kreeb everything he knew about the Afflicted One’s plans. This would be a slow and excruciating procedure. He would also learn about his own past, the details needed to fill in the gaps between the nightmarish images of his memories. When he had torn every piece of useful information from Kreeb’s mind, he would kill him and discard the body somewhere his master would be sure to look. And maybe he’d leave a message to make clear that Kreeb would not be the last. Like dismantling a ship, he would start at the bow and remove a plank at a time until nothing was left but a pile of wood.

Raven was about to lift himself over the edge to carry out his dark intentions when the sound of scraping stones joined the crackling of the bonfire. On the other side of the bluff, a bald head peeked into the circle of light. Then another and another, until a dozen humanoids clambered around the fire with Kreeb.

They were unlike anything Raven had seen before. Thick, bone-white arms rippling with muscle burst from tightly fitted blackened leather vests. Though not especially tall, each had broad shoulders, giving them the appearance of powerful warriors. Only their weapon choice and facial features distinguished one from another, except for the largest among them. A head taller than the rest, with a silver ring around its neck where the others wore copper. Its cloak billowed, hiding something underneath. Kreeb approached this one.

While the competing sounds of the wind and fire kept the words between them from being discernible, it was apparent that Raven was witnessing a conversation, a back-and-forth between two intelligent entities. And it was this that made the pallid-skinned creature appear to be more man than beast, though its contorted face in the firelight implied something between. When they were done speaking, this largest of the warriors gathered all but four of its kind and retreated back down the bluff. The others spread out around the bonfire like sentries.

Kreeb strode casually past a small tent, approaching the area where Raven clung. A little closer and he would be within reach.

He stopped just short. His dry, shrill voice cut through the sounds of the night. “Come out, whoever you are.”

Raven was not sure how he had been revealed, but it did not matter. His plan had always been to find Kreeb and question him. Little had changed. He pulled himself onto the bluff to face his adversary.

The man in gray sucked in a surprised breath. “I did not think I’d see you again.”

The pitch and tone of his words sounded different than he remembered. “You are not Kreeb.”

“No, it’s me, Gyste. Please, join me by the fire.”

He turned and walked away, showing Raven his back. Try as he might, Raven could not compel his muscles to do anything but follow. While he didn’t remember this little man with the high-pitched voice, he could not shake the feeling they had once been more than acquaintances.

Gyste motioned Raven to take a seat while he crawled inside the tent. When he returned, it was with two cups of a steaming green liquid.

Raven did not take a seat, nor did he acknowledge the drink. He stared at Gyste, not sure what to make of him.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” asked Gyste. The tone was kind, something Raven was not accustomed to. Now that he heard more of it, the voice bore little resemblance to Kreeb’s. They had the same essence, but deep down, the sounds were distinctively different, like listening to flutes made from dissimilar species of trees.

“I know you only as one who serves at the feet of Azren.”

“I see,” mused Gyste, but the irony of the statement was that he couldn’t see—not really, anyway. They both hid the windows to their souls under the shadows of their hoods. “Maybe this will remind you.”

Gyste pulled back his cowl. What was revealed was not human. Leathery red skin with dark splotches ran from his snout to the top of his head. Oval eyes bulged outward comprising of burnt orange irises surrounding four pupils so close together they formed a line from top to bottom.

“Does this handsome visage stir up any memories?” Gyste asked.

“You are a kobold.” Some part of him had known all along.

Gyste’s smile showed jagged teeth that hearkened back to a day when kobolds were seen as little more than carnivorous beasts. “You really did forget me.”

Not completely. A picture of Gyste chuckling flashed through Raven’s skull like a childhood remembrance. He pushed it aside, allowing his hatred for Azren and all his ilk to well up inside him until he could imagine driving his twin swords through the body of the kobold, crimson blood spilling out to stain the gray cloak the same color as the creature’s skin.

When Raven did not respond, Gyste persisted. “Will you do me the same favor?”

“Very well.” Raven pulled his cowl back and let his eyes burn with every harsh feeling he had.

Gyste was not surprised to see Raven’s mutilated face and ears. He gave an approving nod—at first. Once he noticed the baleful glare, an astonished look crossed his features. “You want to kill me.”

“If it brought me closer to destroying Azren, you would already be dead.” He spoke it not as a threat but as a fact.

“By the blood of my ancestors, you will not find me such easy prey. Besides,” he glanced toward the white-skinned warriors standing sentry, “they would not have it.”

“A time may come when I will have to take my chances.”

“I know you don’t remember this, but not so long ago, you and I were comrades. Some might even call us friends.” Gyste drank a sip of the hot green liquid before pushing the cup toward Raven. “You see, there’s no poison.”

Raven took the cup, regretting it the instant he did. Why am I accepting anything from this creature of Azren? He held it with two hands, feeling the warmth against his gloved palms. He breathed in deeply. The aroma was reminiscent of an obliterated past that threatened to suck him away. He could not help himself but drink. The liquid coated his insides with heat and left his throat tingling with spices. His lids closed in utter contentment.

“If you don’t remember, it’s called grequin tea, made from the same root as its name. Warms the spirit and heals the soul, they say. Hard to believe something this good comes out of the blighted lands alone. It looks like a shriveled weed when you pull it from the ground. Just goes to show you, Raven, not all is what it appears.”

Raven took another long sip before opening his eyes to stare once more at the kobold who claimed to be his friend.

He needed time to contemplate. He couldn’t fathom why he would feel anything but hatred for this Gyste, who was clearly his enemy. Without a word, he turned and started back toward the edge of the bluff.

A hand—a claw—grasped gently at his shoulder. “Do not go. Share the warmth of the fire.”

Raven hesitated. If he left, he could collect his thoughts and track Gyste from afar. He weighed this against remaining to find out more about his shattered past.

“I will not keep you here,” Gyste said. “But if you stay, I’ll make you more grequin tea in the morning.”

He shook free of Gyste’s hand and continued almost to the edge of the bluff before setting up his own camp. He would not cozy up to this servant of Azren.

After a time of lying in his own covers with nothing but the wind and the fire for conversation, his thoughts were interrupted by the kobold. “Do you remember how you were given your name?”

Given? Appalled, he stayed silent, not wishing to admit his ignorance.

“Azren named you after an especially daring escape attempt,” Gyste continued affably. “He said Take heed, my Raven. No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to fly.” A light chuckle came across the crackling flames.

Raven tasted the shameful truth of it in his mouth. Wouldn’t that make him a creature of the Afflicted One, the same as Gyste? No. No, it did not. It could not. The name Raven had been forced upon him like the name of any pet, but he was not his pet anymore. He was a killer. And he was more determined than ever to find Azren and destroy him.

Clinging to that thought, with the residue of the tea still tingling in the back of his throat, Raven found peace. What followed was the most deep and restful sleep he’d had in some time.

==> Continue Reading Chapter 36: Song of the Gems

 

book-cover-with-spine

Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books. Enjoy a new chapter every Sunday available right here. 

Learn more about the people, magic and places of Draza along with a detailed map and history at TheBlackTrilogy.com. Questions and comments are welcome, email will@theblacktrilogy.com.

 

 

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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 34: The Price of a Queen http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-34-the-price-of-a-queen/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-34-the-price-of-a-queen/#respond Sat, 19 Aug 2017 12:01:10 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5128

The Price of a Queen

 

 

Selgrin had decided long ago that wings were a true marvel of nature, powerful enough to propel a creature at tremendous speeds, yet delicate and precise. Even the tiniest twitch could cause a change in directions. It was unfortunate winged creatures were the most difficult to study for transformation, often too distant or too wary for him to gather the necessary details.

Another waste of a good form. Figures. The thought stuck in his mind like a wood sliver from an old rowboat. The Camerians despised his kind. They made no pretense they despised him. He’d had to lurk in the shadows to hide from their disdain—even the king’s. And now that they were in desperate straits on the brink of war, who do they need to save their arses? That wretched dogar Selgrin, of course.

Is Tendrils of Darkness new to you? Click here to go to Chapter 1.

He fumed as the ground rushed below him, the trees and rocks passing in a blur. He’d do his part, despite it all. Not for glory or for duty. It was more than that, and less. He wanted to be remembered not by name but for being a dogar, though he wasn’t sure what difference it would make. Once Azren made war and the dogar joined in, all this would be forgotten. If he thought Camerians held him in disdain now, give it time; he’d be picked up on sight as a traitor and a spy.

Pumping wings that spanned seven feet in width, he soon spied a lone horse with two riders. Haril sat behind, supporting the limp figure of the queen.

He soared ahead of the horse then came back around, swooping at the riders from the side, his flight silent, claws extended. The horse reared up in fright forcing Selgrin back toward the treetops. He swung around for another attempt. Maybe he could snatch the queen before Haril could quell his mount.

It was not to be. The horse settled quickly. Haril began making hand movements, and the wind rose.

Selgrin scythed through the air currents like a ship against the waves. The intensity of the currents increased, and he could hear squealing in his ears. Almost there.

Another hand motion from Haril and the gust turned violent, as if an air elemental had backhanded Selgrin in midflight. A fragile wing slammed into the earth, sending him cartwheeling until he ended on his chest. The throbbing in his battered wing gave evidence that he wouldn’t be doing any more flying this night.

Haril got off his horse and approached, weapon drawn. The queen remained slumped in the saddle. Sel changed back to dogar form, stumbling to a standing position as his vision cleared. He reached for his broadsword only to come to the rude reality that his right arm—the only arm with a hand—was nearly useless from the fall.

A moment later, Haril’s weapon was leveled at his chest.

“I’m honored to meet you,” Haril said, tilting his head downward in recognition.

“What do you know of me?” demanded Sel.

“You’re the Dersimeysous, the savior of our people. It is a rare treat to watch the spectacle of your natural abilities.”

Of course. “You’re a dogar.” It was a statement of fact.

“Does it surprise you so?”

He snorted. “I just didn’t expect one of our kind to be mixed up in this business.”

“We dogar are fond of coin, and Azren has bagfuls of it. This type of thing was bound to happen.”

“Our people were once the most renowned merchants in all of Draza. You’ve reduced us to mercenaries.”

“I seem to remember that you too accepted raxburies for the Afflicted One’s purposes. I’m simply following in your footsteps.”

Selgrin raised his stump accusingly. “I’d never take coin for kidnapping. It’s no wonder the humans distrust our kind.”

“I did not expect such naïveté from you, Dersimeysous. You cannot earn the trust of a human. Even in good times, they never warmed to our kind.”

It had been forty years since humans and dogar were on opposite sides of a war, yet the layers of distrust and animosity remained. Would they ever go away? The baleful glares he received in Camere and the slurs of worm-face bubbled fresh in Sel’s memory.

“You have no reply, I see,” said Haril with a touch of triumph in his voice. “It’s because you know I’m right. The humans hate what they don’t understand and fear what we can do.”

“Say what you will about them. It does not make your doings any less depraved.”

“My actions are in the interest of war, and I’ll be the hero of it. These demands of King Brelin are just the beginning. When all is said and done, I’ll have brought Durfolk to its knees. And with Azren’s help, our people shall have a renaissance. Imagine dogar caravans stretching in all directions from Feralintero. It is not too late for you, Dersimeysous, to join the cause.”

It was a tempting future. Selgrin had a feeling Velotanin would welcome him into the fold with open arms. Heck, he might even live up to his title if he took part in leading his people into a new golden age.

He shook his head. “I won’t. Not like this.”

“You think the humans rose to prominence through peace and diplomacy? It’s always been war and deception.”

Haril had a point. The quest for power had led humans down a degenerate path. Even the Council of the Alliance, a group founded on upstanding principals, had been up to no good for years. If Sel hadn’t been so wrapped up in his own duties, he’d have seen it before.

Or have I known all along?

Perhaps a part of him had turned a blind eye to their corruption so he could continue working for the Alliance, bolstering the dogar name. And if he had done all that just to engender a measure of goodwill, were the long-term fortunes of his people worthy of more drastic measures? The question was where to draw the line. Kidnapping? War? Murder? At what point is the price too steep?

“By now,” Haril continued, “I imagine the dogar have allied themselves with Azren, making my actions those of a patriot. When I return to Feralintero, I’ll be lauded more than the Dersimeysous himself.”

Selgrin couldn’t believe it. All this bloodshed, and Haril was not even certain of the dogar alliance with Azren. Perhaps he could use this to his advantage.

He crinkled his eyebrows together. “What are you talking about? Our people voted against an alliance with Azren. I was there.”

The confidence on Haril’s face washed away. “You’re lying.”

Selgrin fed him enough of the truth for it to be believable. “There was a failed attempt on the Chamber Head’s life. With Lofilyer’s survival, the opposition had the votes to thwart an alliance with Azren.”

“That can’t be. I was told by a trusted source it was a sure thing.” Haril was so agitated he slammed the blade of the scimitar down to the ground, nearly impaling Sel’s foot.

“Who told you that? Velotanin? Belatreeg?” Selgrin could tell he hit a nerve with at least one of those names by the look on Haril’s face. “You have a lot to worry about if you’re taking their word on anything.”

“I-I’m to be a hero.”

“Hero? More like a traitor. The only celebration you’ll attend in Feralintero will have to do with your head on a pole.”

“No…” Haril’s eyes bulged. “No!” Letting go of his weapon, he grabbed two fistfuls of Sel’s tunic, drawing him in.

“There’s still a chance,” Sel said. “I can bring you before the Senate. Maybe—”

“It’s too late. I cannot undo what’s been done… unless—” Haril slid his hands to Sel’s throat. “This never happened. I was never a part of this.”

Sel tried once more to lift his injured arm but nearly fainted from the blistering pain that shot down from his shoulder to his wrist. Haril’s grip tightened around his neck. Breathing became impossible.

“Only you know, Dersimeysous,” Haril cried. “Only you…”

Selgrin couldn’t risk changing forms while his neck was being compressed. His entire right arm was limp. His left ended in a useless stub. Things would be different had he another hand.

A hand. It was a ludicrous idea—but what if it wasn’t? What if instead of changing his entire self, he could simply grow a new hand? He was dubious it could work, but he attempted it all the same, imagining his stump becoming a copy of his good hand, with the same lines and crags. It seemed strange, focusing on a single body part. Haril continued to squeeze, depriving him of precious air, and still no hand appeared.

Out of sheer desperation, he imagined Haril’s hand as if it were its own entity, and he willed his stub to become like it. He choked, he hoped, he prayed. And then it happened, more amazing to him than transforming into a giant worm. He remained plain old Sel, only different. His stub elongated and widened. Fingers popped out in unison, forming a palm.

He felt light-headed—from lack of air or transforming, he didn’t know. It didn’t matter. There was only one way out of this. He curled his digits and made a fist, punching forward.

The hold on his neck loosened for a moment, allowing a sip of air to enter his lungs before they tightened once more. He punched again. This time, he found no reprieve. He grabbed at a hand on his throat and tried to peel it back, but it was like a stone claw.

Haril’s eyes were mad with intent.

Selgrin’s consciousness was slowly slipping away. His vision blurred, his mind was muddled. He reached for his dagger, shoving the point forward without power, unsure if it even found a target.

Whatever he did was enough. Haril let go. Sel sucked in air. His dagger had pierced Haril below the rib cage. It was not deep. His hand—Haril’s hand—still held onto the weapon. Seeing the hand attached to his stump was mesmerizing.

Haril too looked down, but his expression was one of horror. He began shaking his head violently. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he shrieked. “I never meant to… Not another dogar—not the Dersimeysous…”

Selgrin withdrew the dagger.

“I thought I’d be hero.” Haril swayed side to side, his fingers interlocked in a sign of repentance.

Selgrin was unsure what to do with this hardened loyalist turned guilt-ridden offender. He realized that bringing Haril back bound and gagged would give the humans just what they wanted: a dogar villain. They wouldn’t remember that another dogar had risked his life to bring Haril to justice. His people would be more despised than ever.

Selgrin tightened his grip on the hilt of the dagger.

“I’m sorry,” said Haril in little more than a whisper.

“So am I.” Selgrin thrust the blade back in, deeper this time.

Haril made a loud cry and grabbed at his wound, trying to stifle the blood cascading down his torso.

Selgrin pulled the dagger free, and the blood gushed in earnest. Haril fell forward, coughing as he pressed his hands to his gut. But he could not stop the pool forming beneath him. His skin paled as he bled out.

Selgrin felt the sprinkles of rain on his forehead. The rain could not wash away his crimes. He hid the body off the road among the brambles, pulling them into position with Haril’s own hand. Now he knew the price he was willing to pay to protect his people’s reputation.

Murder.

It was better this way, he told himself, not just for the dogar people but for Haril as well. The humans would have tortured him. He would have wished he was dead. Better to die this way rather than writhing in agony, fueling a fire of hatred.

By the time he’d secured the unconscious queen and ridden back to the mountain, Daen, Copius, and Elandra were waiting for him below. Renaldo and Dubree stayed in the cavern with the captured bandits; after what had happened earlier, it was deemed too risky to bring the captives down at night. Elandra said she would have her uncle send men-at-arms in the morning. Conveniently, this meant that Ren and Dubree would not be with them to witness the return of the true queen.

Selgrin told the others that Haril had gotten away on foot. Elandra eyed him accusingly. For once, he thought, the distrust was warranted. Daen gave him an approving nod for his efforts and moved on to attend to the safety of the queen. Only Copius seemed overly concerned for Selgrin’s well-being, overly being the key word. He put Selgrin’s arm in a sling and asked at least a dozen times if he was okay.

During their ride back, the queen recovered from whatever sedation she was under, mumbling groggily and often. When they arrived at the city gates, the guards straightened and allowed their party immediate entry. Elandra commanded the type of respect that meant no questions asked.

Soldiers roamed the inn alertly, but missing was the king and his personal bodyguards. Elandra escorted the queen into Mayalordrel’s room while the rest of them waited downstairs until they were summoned. By the time Selgrin entered the room, the queen was propped up in bed, cleaned and in fresh sleeping attire.

Maya was back in her own form with a hand on the shoulder of the queen. “It’s a good thing you didn’t arrive earlier. The king was here half the night while I pretended to sleep.”

Queen Terenda smiled at the thought. Some color had already returned to her cheeks. “My dear has a heart of gold,” she said softly.

“How do you feel, my lady?” asked Elandra.

“I’ll be fine, thanks to my rescuers—especially this one.”

Queen Terenda was looking at him. She must have been aware he had saved her. What might she have witnessed?

Selgrin grunted. “It was nothing.”

“It is appreciated,” she said, before settling back into a pillow. “I think I shall rest now.”

Elandra gave the queen a kiss on the forehead. “Sleep well, Auntie.”

Sel was almost out the door when the queen called out in a barely audible voice, “Maya?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“What have you told the king about my escape?”

“One night ago, you escaped from your abductors, stole a horse, and came to the city. I—you—have been too weak to give any other information.”

“Good.” The queen’s face relaxed, and her eyes closed before Maya closed the door behind them.

Downstairs, Elandra called for some cheese and motioned for the others to join her at a table. It was nearing dawn, and Selgrin felt like he’d been pounded by a sandbag. As he sat, his joints squealed in protest. None of the others looked much better outside of Maya, whose face shone brightly, ready for the start of a new day.

Daen slumped back against the chair. “It was a good thing we accomplished this night.”

“A good start,” corrected Elandra. “We still must find out who was behind this.”

“It was Azren,” said Sel in a dry voice that begged for a pint of ale. The others stared at him, waiting for him to expand upon his claims. “Haril told me he was paid by the Afflicted One to abduct the queen.” It was as much of the truth he could admit.

“Then it’s as expected,” Elandra said. “Azren hoped we would send our armies to the south while he swept in and looted our cities—all of which makes our next move crucial.” She eyed Daen, Selgrin, and Copius, sizing them up. “I will need to ask more of you in this fight.”

“I think we’ve done enough already,” said Selgrin. They had rescued the queen and kept Camere out of a war. Truth be told, he was tired. Tired of it all. The way he figured it, he was lucky to be alive. Only hours earlier, he had wrestled on the side of the Grogund-Dejedru Ridge then faced off against a dogar elementalist. A makeshift sling held his aching right arm, and his bruised neck felt as if fingers still clutched it.

Worse than all of that, he had killed one of his own kind. He glanced down at his stub. Not long after Haril’s death, he’d let the hand melt away. He could not stand to look at it, the hand of the dogar whose life he ended.

“Then I will not ask it,” said Elandra. “I will command it. Ignore this command, and my uncle will become aware you are not members of the Alliance. He may even come to think that you three were involved with the taking of his beloved queen. And if he believed that were the merest of possibilities, there would be no place for you to hide from his vengeance.”

“Some gratitude,” Selgrin muttered.

Mayalordrel placed a hand on his shoulder. “Help us.”

“Why? For the good of Draza? I think I’ve heard that one before.”

“How about for your own people?” she said.

He hesitated. Mayalordrel knew where his soft spot was. “If you haven’t forgotten, your Spider Sect is on the wrong side of the war for that.”

“You know what I mean. It’s up to dogar like us. You said it yourself back in Feralintero: we need to show all of Draza the true mettle of our people.”

He shook his head stubbornly. “I’ve done my part for forty years, and look at the good that’s come of it. All I’ve gotten are dirty looks and sour ale. Mark my words, when Azren brings his army and the dogar join him, we’re going to be more reviled than ever.”

“So are you just going to run away again?” Those steely gray eyes of hers peeled away at his defenses. “Sit this war out like you did the last?”

“It sure beats the alternative.” She was right. He had left Feralintero before the Great War started, and he wanted no part of any new war either. “I guess that makes me a born coward.”

“It certainly does. And I thought I was through being disappointed in you.”

And then she was gone, marching out of the room without a glance back. Done with him.

But not Elandra. “Listen up,” she barked like an army commander. “I make it my business to ferret out the cowards among our recruits. A coward can’t be trusted in the heat of battle to obey an order or protect your blindside. I’ve watched you. You may be a filthy, no-good dogar, but you’re no coward.”

Just another example of the closeness between the dogar and humans.

“Maybe I don’t know whose side to be on.” The moment he said it, he knew exactly what was bothering him. He wasn’t running away from a fight—he was running away from having to choose. War was treachery. War was murder. If he took sides, he would be asked to take part in the worst of crimes. His actions against Haril would be just the beginning.

Everyone at the table was staring at him. Elandra chuckled like she had when he had made the joke about Copius being useful at a feast. “Because of what you did—because you saved the queen—I’ll let you walk out of here alive right now, if that’s what you want. So make up your mind, dogar.”

She was forcing him to decide between the people he had spent the last half of his life with or the ones he had been born into. He remembered what Ralscap had said about humans having long memories when it came to bloodshed. This wasn’t about taking sides for this war but for the rest of his days.

“I—I will help,” Copius announced. “I’m sure The One would want me to follow the righteous path against Azren.”

And there it was: Copius piping up at precisely the wrong moment. The monk’s pudgy face sagged; he was tired too, yet the first to offer himself. Didn’t he realize what these people had already put him through?

“Fine. You can count me in as well,” Selgrin said, “but not because anyone is ordering me to do it.” He’d come this far; they all had. It was time for him to recognize the side he had already chosen.

A worn-out voice came from Daen, who was now resting his head sideways on a crooked elbow. “I agree to do whatever you want on one condition.”

Elandra turned toward him in challenge.

“I must immediately retire for the night. If I do not reach a bed soon, I will fall asleep at this table.”

“Agreed,” she said, grinning. “Get some shut-eye—all of you. We’ll meet back here in the morning.”

 

Section Break

 

Selgrin was first to be up and about—not that he had actually slept. He’d spent the night turning over the possibilities of opposing Azren yet supporting his people, without making any headway. He sipped his flagon alone downstairs until midmorning. Maya never showed up. Copius was two plates in when Daen came downstairs.

Elandra greeted him with her usual civility. “And finally, our sound-sleeping sentinel arrives.”

Lady Elandra.” Daen bowed in mock reverence.

“Any more of that and you may find yourself under arrest for insulting an officer.”

A pot that smelled of rotten meat and dishrags arrived from the kitchen just as Zeph and Cahrin entered the inn, taking opposite paths to their table.

“Great timing.” Selgrin crinkled his noise. “Was it the smell that brought you in this direction?”

Cahrin spoke over Zeph’s attempt to reply. “No, Zeph just asked around until he found the filthiest, most rodent-infested inn he could. I guess he thought he would feel most at home here with the rats.”

Ouch. Selgrin pressed his lips together to suppress a laugh. Though the insult had been meant for Zeph, it was Elandra who clenched her fists in anger.

“Very funny,” Zeph deadpanned. “Let’s just say your actions here have been noticed—at least to the point where a little coin could loosen tongues.”

“My coin, I might add,” said Cahrin.

“Where are the others?” asked Selgrin.

Zeph’s face darkened. “Demetrius’s thread was cut short.”

“He fought bravely,” added Cahrin. “He saved my life—quite possibly all of our lives.”

Daen discreetly waved away an offered bowl of soup. “I am sorry, Zeph. From what I knew of him, he was selfless in his actions.”

“The One will see his soul in Ascouth,” said Copius, tracing three circles in the air in a sign of peace for the dead.

And this is just the beginning. Sel shook his head somberly. None of the others had been around during the Great War. They didn’t know how bad it could get—how bad it would get.

“Raven left to go track a servant of Azren,” said Cahrin.

And finally some good news for a change. “Good riddance, I say.”

“I’m not so sure. He is very skilled. His methods may not be ours, but he does hate Azren—probably more than all of us combined.”

“Speaking of Azren, I say we get down to business.” Elandra’s tone was more an order than a suggestion. There was clearly no time for grieving, in her mind.

Two tables were pushed together to accommodate the larger group, and plans were debated in great detail. When it was said and done, they set to gathering their supplies. They would leave the next morning at the break of dawn as newly anointed members of the Spider Sect.

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 35: The Hunted

 

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Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books. Enjoy a new chapter every Sunday available right here. 

Learn more about the people, magic and places of Draza along with a detailed map and history at TheBlackTrilogy.com. Questions and comments are welcome, email will@theblacktrilogy.com.

 

 

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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 33: Troll http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-33-troll/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-33-troll/#respond Sat, 12 Aug 2017 12:01:10 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5130

Troll

 

 

It seemed like a good idea at the time, launching his throwing daggers at the troll. Then again, when the Threshers had first appeared, his grand escape plan had involved swinging on a chandelier—he’d always wanted to do that. But on further reflection, the chandelier above them looked like it was having trouble carrying candles, much less the weight of a person.

As he watched the beast charge at him full bore with several daggers barely embedded in its tough skin, he realized this strategy followed along those same lines: short on contemplation, long on ramifications.

Is Tendrils of Darkness new to you? Click here to go to Chapter 1.

His next salvo left a blade in its right shoulder and two hilts protruding from its chest. As he’d explained the previous evening to the queen, it was not easy to kill someone—or something—by impaling it through the heart.

Its injuries did not slow the creature. If anything, it came at him even faster than before. Gathering three more blades in each hand, he crouched with his back against an undamaged portion of the railing, the last barrier before a drop to the atrium below. The troll would be on top of him before he could draw more.

My thread continues, nothing can change that, he reminded himself—not even a toll. So why in Dela’s loom do my knees want to collapse as if they’re made of sand.

The troll was just over two lengths away when he flung the daggers with all the strength he could muster. Blades ravaged its already injured leg, causing it to give way midstride. The troll kept advancing, one leg down, the rest of its body skidding with its momentum. Zeph leapt sideways, but the creature managed to tear leather and skin before slamming through the railing and tumbling to the atrium below.

Zeph staggered to the edge and looked over the shattered railing. Kreeb was scrunched over the sprawled troll in confusion, like a child who’d lost his favorite toy. Breezing down the stairs came Raven, swords drawn and closing on Kreeb when a blanket of darkness consumed the atrium.

Zeph strained for clues on what was going on below, but it was impossible to see. All sound, even the clopping of Raven’s boots, had evaporated.

And then the blackness dissipated like a mist, revealing Raven looking about in confusion. Kreeb had gone missing, and the troll as well.

Zeph spotted the creature. “Behind the crate!” he hollered down.

Raven spun around.

Bloodied, with an arm twisted unnaturally and a leg dragging behind, the troll hobbled toward him. Even in its ragged condition, it was a loathsome monstrosity, a hunter and a killer, never something to be taken lightly. Raven strode forward to meet it.

A swipe from the troll’s usable arm was met with steel. Skin split from shoulder to elbow. Zeph winced at the creature’s tortured screech. Its second attack was rebuffed with more stabbing. As the troll became more cautious, Raven turned into the aggressor. His blades sliced in and out, drawing blood with every merciless attack. The creature stumbled backward from Raven’s cold, calculated onslaught.

He doesn’t want to kill it—not yet. It looked as if Raven was carving it up on purpose, sending a message to its master.

A dozen slashes and thrusts later and the creature was more red than green. The troll had become desperate. Its attacks grew reckless as its injuries mounted. The opportunity to finish its prey was running out. One arm was useless and the other would soon be. It barely stood upright. The troll lurched forward head first. Raven’s blade caught the base of its neck in a glancing blow before their foreheads collided. Raven swayed. A long-nailed claw grabbed a fistful of cloak and swung outward, smashing Raven against the wooden wall of a closed shop. His entire body shuddered with the impact, and his swords fell from his grasp. The troll gave a pealing cry and began to batter Raven against the wall again and again.

He was done for. Finished. Unless… Zeph drew Venytier.

Raven’s body slammed into the wall for a fourth time as Venytier spun through the air. The point of the dagger arced toward the troll gracefully before sinking into its upper shoulder. The wound was not fatal, but the troll dropped Raven’s limp body and came after Zeph. It pulled itself up onto the crate.

Zeph gave it everything he had, peppering its shoulders and chest with throwing daggers. A few bounced off its thick-skulled head as it climbed to the landing. The troll stumbled toward him, reeking of body odor and blood. Zeph gripped two daggers in each hand—his last. Then shoved the twin blades forward.

Steel delved into guts. The troll convulsed, and for a moment Zeph thought it was over. A hardened forearm came slinging out, catching him below the chin and snapping his head backward.

The last thing he saw was a glimpse of the chandelier—oh, what good times we’ll miss—as his feet left the ground and his shoulder blades crashed against hard stone.

 

Section Break

 

King Hybris lie unmoving in shock. He mumbled occasionally as Cahrin tended his wounds. They were deep, and anything she used to stanch the bleeding became soaked through in a matter of moments.

She had thought the battle long over when she saw the troll climb back to the landing.

What if it comes to finish what it started? She relieved one of the dead Threshers of his crossbow. By the time she had it loaded, the troll was howling in victory over the crumpled form of Zeph. She sent a bolt of steel piercing its side, transforming its howl into a cry. It didn’t last long. Already it was coming, dragging its useless leg behind, unrelenting, its appetite for murder instinctive.

She fired another bolt, this one puncturing its midsection. It too failed to slow the manic step and drag of approaching death. She attempted to load a third bolt before throwing the crossbow down in futility. It would be too late. A summoning was out of the question as well. She had forgone the time needed for magic to bandage the king and must now rely on her hunting knife to defend herself. Against a troll, it was nothing but a dull piece of steel.

“I’ve fought uoko meaner than you,” she hollered, standing protectively in front of the king. It was stupid to die this way, protecting a ghasiv, and so close to fulfilling her grim oath. But she had made her choice all the same.

A flash of pink blurred past, and then she saw tiny claws shredding the troll’s eyes and face. The troll wagged its head. Its massive hand swept Norweegee aside, sending the little guy skittering through the Great Hall.

From behind Cahrin came another form, jerking forward unevenly. It was Demetrius, white-faced and bloodied. How could he even be alive, much less still standing? He carried a broadsword before him in both hands as if it was a dousing rod.

Stumbling past her, he thrust awkwardly at the troll, somehow connecting to its bowels. It shrieked in anguish. Demetrius held his ground, grinning foolishly. Cahrin wanted to turn away, but she was locked onto the grim scene as the troll’s fist cracked the young lord’s skull, dropping him for good. Blood was everywhere: leaking from the troll, covering Demetrius, all over the wall, and on the floor.

Cahrin dropped her knife and sprinted at the troll. It was yanking a hunk of flesh from Demetrius when she wrapped her fingers around the hilt of the embedded broadsword and gave a vigorous thrust. Deeper the blade drove, and the troll responded with a roar.

Claws slashed her back. The pain was enormous, but she was not eviscerated—this was not the same creature that started the night.

She put her weight into it the blade, twisting and stabbing forward. The roar still on the creature’s lips petered out, and with it went the troll’s body, finally succumbing to the injuries it had endured. It thrashed around on the stone floor, clawing at the air until even that was too much. Limp and unmoving, the troll was dead.

Genawi streaked from underneath the table to sob at Demetrius’s side. Cahrin joined her to examine his injuries.

“May your spirit go quickly to Nebra,” she whispered sorrowfully.

She had seen many battles as a northern clanswoman, and Demetrius’s pallid skin and shallow breath gave evidence to a body already past suffering. He must have sustained severe internal wounds from his collision with the wall. He’d been dying even before he charged the troll, and he’d probably known it. Yet somehow, he had spirited up enough vigor to save her—and for that, she was thankful.

Genawi leaned over her love, staring at his ashen face as if her gaze alone could restore him. Demetrius’s lids slowly dropped until not even a sliver of life shone through.

King Hybris had fared little better than Demetrius. Barely lucid, he lay unmoving as the castle physician changed bandages soaked through with blood. The king was then transferred to a litter and, with the queen by his side, whisked to more accommodating surroundings.

Two of the king’s servants worked with Cahrin to check the other casualties. It was a gruesome scene: the bodies of the Threshers had been beaten beyond recognition, their leader nothing but a bloody slab.

While Zeph’s only visible wounds were the scrapes along his back and face, he hollered like a child whenever he tried to turn his neck. Cahrin had seen men on the battlefield with similar complaints who never walked again, so she was relieved that he could bend his knees and wiggle his toes.

The loyal Bentar had been thrown down to the atrium. Mangled as he was—leg twisted awkwardly, bone protruding from an arm, broken nose, battered face—it appeared as if he would live to see another day. He seemed more concerned for his fellow guard who had not been so lucky.

Most surprising of the injuries she came across were Raven’s. Though he remained unconscious for a time and appeared heavily bruised, she couldn’t find any broken bones or signs of internal harm. She ran her hand over the pink gouges on his skin. Perhaps he had already withstood more than his fair share of suffering.

It was late when she finally made it to bed.

“That was a very stupid thing you did today,” she said crossly to the xaffel who lay on the pillow beside her. “Very stupid, but very brave.”

Norweegee gave her a toothy smile, and she felt the pride well within him. Before long, the paunchy pink fellow had closed his eyes in slumber.

It took her much longer to fall asleep. Visions of the troll haunted her, as did memories of the mutilated bodies of the dead. When she finally drifted off, her sleep was short-lived and anything but restful.

At daybreak she went to check on Zeph. The court physician had secured his neck with two splints to keep him from turning his head.

“You see what they got me in? I feel like a scarecrow.”

“I’d say it is an improvement to your normal appearance.” Her words felt forced, Demetrius’s last breaths still prominent in her thoughts.

“You’re welcome to try it on,” said Zeph. “It would do wonders for your ice witch look.”

“No, no. I wouldn’t want to deprive you of it.”

“Please, take it. I have a feeling it’s going to make sleeping a nightmare,” Zeph said, pun clearly intended. He attempted a grin, and she laughed uneasily.

After a long silence, his face turned somber. “I killed him, you know. I lied to him so he’d help us escape, and now—now he’s dead.”

It was the first she had heard of this, but it made no difference. If anyone was to blame for Demetrius’s death, it was her. She had missed her opportunity to kill Kreeb, and he had exacted his master’s agenda on another she cared about.

“My people have a saying: the mountain does not blame the snow for increasing its burden. You had little choice in the matter. You did what you thought you must do. That is what I know. Ask yourself if he was truly your friend, why did you have to deceive him in in the first place?”

The neck splint prevented Zeph from turning away to hide the thick lines of anguish that covered his features. “It wasn’t his fault. Demetrius always listened to his father. He was a good son.”

“Yes, I believe he was.” She remembered her not-so-obedient childhood, how she questioned reason at every turn. She wondered what it was like for Zeph, who had never known his parents, only the distant austerity of the Carcs.

“But in the end, Demetrius would’ve done right by us,” said Zeph. “I’m sure of it. Maybe if I hadn’t deceived him, there’d have been another way, one where he never left Duradune.”

“And how would that have changed things? I thought you believed that everyone’s death was preordained by Dela.”

“I’ve been thinking about what Darseer Caspar said, that Azren has the power to disrupt Dela’s thread. He warned us about going against Azren. I—I should have told Demetrius what he was getting himself into.”

She sighed. No sense in arguing with a belief. “And they say, Northerners are pig-headed. You think on this, Zeph Greymoon: no matter what has happened and how it happened, I’m sure Demetrius would forgive you. He’d forgive it all, even though it meant his death.”

Zeph seemed to cheer up at that notion. “Yeah, he would. Demetrius was like that.”

“Of course he was. See? Those neck splints are helping you already.”

“How do you figure?” asked Zeph.

“For the first time since I’ve known you, you’re talking as if your head is on straight. Maybe you should leave the splints on permanently.”

“And maybe you’d like a splint shoved—”

She covered his mouth before he could complete the sentence. “Really, Zeph.”

Despite the barbs that continued as they left the room together, she felt the mood had lightened, at least as much as it could given the circumstances. But if she had not felt a certain responsibility to check on Raven’s wounds, they would have lost another of their companions without the opportunity to say farewell. As it was, he was halfway out the door with his belongings packed when they arrived.

“You’re leaving us,” she said.

Raven’s hollow voice echoed in the narrow corridor. “I must find the servant of Azren before the trail turns cold.”

“What about King Hybris?” Zeph asked. “What about honoring the dead?”

“Babysitting is for nursemaids, and the dead are beyond my help.”

“I guess you and Kreeb have some catching up to do.”

Raven’s eyes flashed dangerously, though his voice maintained his usual dry tone. “It is a shame that the ungrateful must be saved alongside the unwitting.”

Cahrin interceded before Zeph figured out he’d been insulted. “Farewell, then. May our paths cross again.”

“My path leads only to Azren.” He started down the hallway.

With little else to do, she suggested they check on the king. They were denied entry. The guards said that due to His Majesty’s health, he would not be receiving visitors. The next day, King Hybris was pronounced dead.

The news hit Cahrin hard. It was as if their struggle with the troll and the sacrifices of so many had been for nothing. She sought Zeph for companionship. He was as shaken up as she was. Dumbfounded, they aimlessly wandered through the castle, not sure what to talk about or where to go.

“I wonder if Bentar knows?” she asked abruptly.

“Bentar?”

“The king’s protector who was so badly injured. He may not have been told of King Hybris’s death. I’d want to know the moment it happened, if I were him.”

Zeph shrugged. “If you say so.”

Driven by the idea, she found a servant to direct them to where Bentar was recovering. Poor, loyal Bentar. He was living proof that not all ghasiv were self-serving toads. His face was wrapped in bandages, and his left arm and leg had been put into splints. He was sleeping, and she decided coming to see him was a mistake. Whatever Bentar should be told could wait. With a nod to Zeph, they started to leave.

“Who goes?” said Bentar hoarsely.

No backing out now.

She stepped close to the bed. “Bentar, it’s me, Cahrin.”

She patted the guard’s hand gently. He hardly looked like himself: a wad of white covered the ruin of his nose, and his bushy brown mustache had been trimmed back to make room for bandages above the lips.

“They say you saved me,” he said.

“I only made sure they moved you safely.” She had directed the court physician how best to get Bentar onto a litter without further aggravating his injuries. It was something she had experience with. Her people rarely stayed in one place more than a few days, and there were always wounded.

Zeph, who was closer to the door than the bed, approached. “How…are you feeling?”

Stupid. What kind of question was that? The alcohol the court physician had undoubtedly prescribed to stifle the pain would have been stopped by now. Bentar showed great fortitude to suffer in silence.

Bentar made a face that could have been a gruff smile hidden under bandages and mustache. “I’m alive.”

“Bentar,” she began, not sure if she could continue, but she decided she must. “His Majesty was not so fortunate.”

The news hit Bentar like a blindsided smite. She had felt the same thing earlier, and it still stung. The blood, the lives, the pain. What use was it if the one person meant to survive did not? Bentar looked as if he wanted to crawl inside his bandages and cry. His eyes closed for a long time before he opened them again.

“The drawer.” Bentar shifted his bandaged head in the direction of a nightstand. Inside, she found a rolled parchment. “King Hybris asked that I locate this. I believe he meant to give it to you.”

All those words said at once seemed to tire him, and he closed his eyes once more. This time, they stayed that way.

She unfurled the parchment until she could read the beginning: The Gems of Tazanjia, A Minstrel’s Tale. She opened it more. A bevy of stanzas from top to bottom described gems and prophecies from long ago. Much of it was faded, some to the point of being unreadable. But there was a story here, with obvious detail.

“Thank you.”

Bentar did not respond. Weariness had overtaken him. She patted his hand once more and they slipped out of the room.

Several hours later, she rejoined Zeph to watch the box containing Demetrius’s remains being loaded onto a cart with two horses. Genawi would accompany the body back to Lord Berrian’s castle. Zeph said something about wishing he could come along and giving Lord Berrian his condolences. Genawi, her eyes red and swollen from more than a day of tears, buried her face in Zeph’s shoulder, sobbing uncontrollably. The undertaker had told them earlier that she had to be pried from the body to prepare it for travel. It took several long minutes for her to regain the composure to stand on her own and bid them farewell.

Back inside, Cahrin could not escape the sadness that pervaded the walls of the castle. It was times like these she hated the oppressive structures the ghasiv built. She wanted to climb Ked’coon’s peaks and call out angrily to Ofunu. As it was, she faced empty corridors and somber rooms. The queen was grieving and would not see them. Even the sky wept.

By evening, she knew it was time to be on their way. The next morning, they packed up their belongings and left Einor behind.

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 34: The Price of a Queen

 

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Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books. Enjoy a new chapter every Sunday available right here. 

Learn more about the people, magic and places of Draza along with a detailed map and history at TheBlackTrilogy.com. Questions and comments are welcome, email will@theblacktrilogy.com.

 

 

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