Best Fantasy Books Blog http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog Reviews, discussions, giveaways, and blog about everything fantasy Sat, 16 Sep 2017 12:01:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.2 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.

 

 

book-cover-with-spineReturn next Sunday to read Chapter 39: The Onyx Stone

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.

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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.

 

 

book-cover-with-spineReturn next Sunday to read Chapter 38: The Many Eyes of the Ilpith

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.”

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“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.

 

 

book-cover-with-spineReturn next Sunday to read Chapter 37: Northerner Alliances

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

 

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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 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

 

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 32: Mountain of a Thousand Caves http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-32-mountain-of-a-thousand-caves/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-32-mountain-of-a-thousand-caves/#respond Wed, 09 Aug 2017 02:28:46 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5127

Mountain of a Thousand Caves

 

 

“Now what?” Elandra thrust the question at Haril like a sword stroke.

Haril winced. “You see where it looks like two beady eyes next to one another? Right above that, there’s an opening.”

Daen followed Haril’s gaze up the boulder-filled slope, illuminated only by the brightness of the moon. “What type of lookout will there be?”

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

“There’s a shallow shelf at the entrance with a single sentry.”

It had taken hours to reach the base of the Grogund-Dejedru Ridge and then an excruciating march without the aid of torches along the valley that bordered the rocky slopes. Exhaustion had set in and bodies slouched, which might have explained Elandra’s irritability, thought Daen.

Elandra grabbed Haril roughly by the jerkin. “You better not be lying about any of this, or you’ll be the first to die.”

“I-I’m not lying.”

“What do you think?” she asked Ren.

The swordsman gave a tired grin. “You know I believe everyone is telling the truth.”

Her upper lip curled in a snarl. “I mean about the climb.”

“It’s light enough, I suppose.” Ren looked critically toward the sky. “But should the clouds roll in, we’ll be climbing blind.”

“Then we shall start at first sign of the sun.”

“If I may,” Daen interjected. Perhaps on edge himself, he tired of Elandra snapping off commands as if she always knew best. “I have some experience in these matters. It would be best to begin at once. If we wait, we will not make it up the mountain until the sun is shining brightly, and by then even a lazy and drunk sentry would see us coming.”

“I trust your experience is in sentry duty and not being lazy and drunk,” Renaldo said.

“I was trained as a sentinel on the Isle of Nalesc.”

“Is that so?” He gave a nod of respect then turned back to scan the ridge. “I hear they start them young.”

“Since a boy of ten.”

“Then we will take your word for it. Just know these canyons often kick up wind unexpectedly and with gusto—similar to El’s temper. If this happens during a night climb, where visibility is also poor…” He shuddered at the notion.

“Ren is not too keen on heights,” Elandra said.

“I prefer my feet planted firmly on the ground.”

“Regardless,” she continued, “The pretty boy might have a point. We’ll proceed two at a time. The first pair will deal with the lookout and lower a rope as far as possible. The rest of us shall follow, climbing the rocks to the rope. Understood?” A nodding of heads all around. “Now, do we have any volunteers for a midnight climb?”

“I’ll go,” Daen said in a peevish tone. While Elandra might not have meant it so, the implication that he was good for little else than to be looked at was an insult to the highest degree. There were those in his family who would wear the “pretty boy” moniker well, but Daen refused to fall in with them. Copius raised his hand, only to have Selgrin pull it down. Daen wasn’t sure what the monk was thinking. He had a hard enough time staying upright on even ground—in daylight.

“I might as well,” said Selgrin. Before anyone could comment about his lack of a hand, he transformed in an athletic-looking Camerian with two working ones.

Renaldo looked pleased. “Then we’re settled.”

The Grogund-Dejedru Ridge was made up entirely of boulders stacked upon boulders, as though some enormous creature had piled them up. The name meant “the giant’s playground” in Rogrom, given back in a time that predated the humans. If not for how steeply the boulders were stacked—that and the lack of proper light to see where they were going—climbing these mountains would have been relatively easy.

Daen took the lead and ascended carefully, mindful that one misstep could send him tumbling downward. About halfway up the rocky slope, he almost did just that. He grabbed what he thought was the edge of a larger rock, but the stone came loose in his hand. Only a solid grip with his other hand kept him rooted to the side of the mountain.

An hour into the climb, an opening in the rocks revealed the shelf with a sentry carrying a shuttered lantern that gave off a dull glow. Much closer and they would be spotted for sure.

Daen found what he was looking for another twenty feet up: a narrow landing where he would have room to use his crossbow. Getting there would require some tricky climbing. He used his head to motion to Sel where he was going and received a nod in response.

The last treacherous stretch lay over some of the largest boulders he had seen, monolithic and smooth, impossible to grip. He could think of but one way to ascend. He propelled himself upward with his legs, grappling the boulder above in a broad embrace, feet dangling as he lifted his body up to the lip of the boulder to try the same procedure all over again. His arms were wrapped around the second to last boulder when the moon ducked behind the scudding clouds, leaving him in utter darkness. All he could do was hang from his position until the light returned.

He attempted to keep his thoughts from the strain in his arms and shoulders. Not an easy task. He had trained his awareness and mental precision for so many years it had become second nature. To let his mind wander was like allowing a heavy breeze to blow him off his feet.

“You can’t help what you are.” The words floated down to him through the darkness. The titter at the end was undeniably Elise.

“Always flitting around like a butterfly,” he answered with grunt.

“Says the grasshopper. Hop, hop away from your homeland.” He imagined her mimicking the bouncing insect—anything to keep his mind from his discomfort. “You can’t hide forever. That highborn warrior woman knows your secret.”

Daen kept his voice barely above whisper. “I can abide her that as long as she does not reveal me. You know what awaits if I am taken back to Nalesc.” He realized how stupid he appeared, hanging from a boulder, talking to himself.

“Even now, you’re telling yourself that I’m not really here.”

“You are dead,” he replied through gritted teeth. He could not hang on much longer.

“And you better not forget it.”

Anything more she said, he blocked out. Another string of her taunting and he might have thrown himself off the mountain.

The darkness endured. What he needed was a focus away from the numbing pain. He turned his attention to a sentinel trick to keep the mind awake: counting.

1, 2, 3… 4, 5, 6…

A torturous burn spread from his shoulders to his elbows. He considered making a blind leap to the next rock but dismissed the idea as folly. Not only would he have to make a precise jump in utter darkness, but he would have to do it twice to reach the landing.

16, 17, 18… 19, 20, 21…

The wind swept up around him, not enough to threaten his position, but enough to remind him things could be worse.

31, 32, 33… 34, 35, 36…

He pressed his face against the rock, hoping a new source of pain would distract him.

He had begun to consider leaving his arms behind when the clouds drifted past and the moon shed its light once more. He propelled himself to the boulder above, then one last time to the landing, pulling his body up and over.

The cold night air raised gooseflesh beneath his sweat-drenched shirt, and he shivered uncontrollably. He rolled onto his back, taking short, erratic breaths. When his breathing settled and the flaming appendages that were his arms reverted to normal, he got up on a knee, took his crossbow out, and added a bolt to the loading chamber.

The sentry now stood well within range, although Daen had no way of knowing how far into the cave behind him the bandit encampment lay. He needed to work quietly, with a single shot, to avoid alerting anyone else.

He braced himself against a rock surface, his heart beating steadily in his ears as he aimed and let loose a bolt.

 

Section Break

 

The Camerian that Selgrin had chosen to impersonate was working out nicely. His strong arms and legs made the climb a breeze, and the light hair and skin helped him blend in with the moonlight-bleached boulders. He could see the bandit sentry hunched forward, shivering against the frigid night air. Then a bolt pierced his neck and sent him tumbling down the mountain, and Sel concluded he would never be cold again.

The rest of the climb went quickly. Once Selgrin pulled himself onto the shelf, he tied one end of the rope he was carrying around three separate large rocks and lowered the slack down the side. He was about to light a torch and wave it as a signal to those below when someone called out from behind him.

“Better not be sleeping, Kalfer.”

Dronilowyn’s luck! He needed to transform fast, while darkness and distance still hid his actions. He hadn’t gotten a good look at the sentry before he’d tumbled down the mountain, but maybe without scrutiny it would be good enough. His vision blurred as the shape-shifting completed, so he stayed down, pretending to admire the view.

A hand gripped his shoulder. “You’re not fooling anybody,” said the newcomer. His other hand held a longsword. “You can pretend to be all serious, but we all know you sleep half the time anyhow. Now get going inside, unless you want to take my watch as well.”

Selgrin rose, turning away so only his profile would be seen. The hand on his shoulder moved with him before tightening its grip and spinning him back around.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Selgrin now faced this man who knew “Kalfer” much better than he. They were both standing a foot from the edge of the shelf. The newcomer was examining the ground all around their feet. “You didn’t drop it, did you?”

The lantern—of course. The original sentry had taken it with him in his fall. Selgrin didn’t dare speak. He lowered his head in shame.

“I knew you’d been sleeping, you moron. Bastal’s going to hear of this—hey, what’s that?”

The man had spotted the rope. Things were about to get ugly. Selgrin decided against drawing his weapon, knowing his enemy’s brandished sword would strike first. As the man squatted down for a closer look, a better idea presented itself.

Selgrin’s palms were already thrusting outward when the sentry became aware that something was amiss. Dropping his weapon, the man reached up and latched onto Selgrin’s wrist—he would not be going over the shelf alone. Searched Selgrin’s face his eyes widened as he realized it wasn’t Kalfer he was dealing with.

The combatants pushed and tugged, each trying to gain the upper hand. At one point they pulled in the same direction and came apart. Selgrin nearly stumbled off the side. By the time he gathered his feet, the sentry was sprinting down the narrow passageway into the mountain.

In a few precious moments, the alarm would be sounded and they would all feel the repercussions; first the queen, then their rescue party, and eventually Mayalordrel.

A bolt whistled by his ear and sank into the back of the departing sentry. Selgrin glanced back. Daen stood at the edge of the landing with his crossbow. The fleeing man fell hard and called out for help twice before Sel silenced him with his broadsword. All they could hope for now was that the sentry’s cries had not been heard.

Selgrin and Daen waited on the shelf, weapons ready. If armed company arrived, they alone would take the brunt.

 

Section Break

 

“If they don’t come back…” Elandra threatened a petrified Haril.

“You worry too much, El,” said Renaldo.

“What if he lied about the number of lookouts they have?”

And why had they been silent so long? It had been an eternity since Copius had side-stepped the body of the dead sentry tumbling down the mountain. Shouldn’t Sel had given them the signal by now? He peered up the mountain; nothing but boulders stacked ever higher until they were just shadows against the night sky.

Ren shrugged. “They survived the rats at your inn. Certainly they can handle some of these vermin.”

“One of these days, Ren, you’ll be sleeping at the inn when the king of the rats comes for you with all his minions.”

“Why else do you think I hone my sword skill?”

A fire swayed high above them—finally, the signal they’d been waiting for.

Elandra grabbed her gear and headed up with Dubree. Copius inserted himself next. He never liked to be in the back. As the saying went, last in line was first to be left behind.

“No.” Her tone was adamant. “Ren, untie the prisoner and follow me. The monk will be our anchor.”

The way she said it was as if she thought he was dead weight. It wasn’t the first time he was regarded as such, though it didn’t hurt any less.

Copius followed the others up. They climbed the less severe, first part of the mountain as Sel and Daen had. The night was still, the moon bright enough to find the best handholds.

“I thought the sentinel and dogar just made this look easy,” said Renaldo, “but it’s actually not so bad.”

“Leopold the Lucky said those same words—right before his ship hit a maelstrom,” said Elandra.

As if in response to the comment, the wind whipped at Copius’s robes.

“Get going.” Ren nudged Haril, who had stopped climbing.

“I’m adjusting,” said Haril.

“Adjust somewhere—”

Copius could no longer hear his words. A surge of wind gusted and swirled, wailing as it threatened to hurl them from the mountain.

“Dig in!” hollered Elandra above the gale.

Copius found a hole between rocks and wedged his hand inside. He looked up to see Dubree struggling to keep his footing, sliding past Elandra. Ren grasped his breeches. It seemed to steady him for a moment, but then a new billow of air blasted the mountainside, and he tumbled backward.

Copius braced himself as Dubree plummeted toward him like the lead boulder in a landslide. He made a fist with his wedged hand, bracing himself—and then Dubree’s weight slammed into him. He wrapped a free arm around Dubree. The sheer force of impact might have torn his wrist off if he hadn’t used the kertaskai hergetra to make his skin as tough as steel. Even so, he felt fortunate the entire side of the mountain was not ripped free.

The wind refused to be denied. It clawed and twisted, attempting to peel them loose, until it finally blew itself out.

Elandra climbed down and offered Dubree her hand. “You okay?”

He gave a dazed nod and accepted her help.

“Good thing we had our anchor.” She gave Copius a wink before resuming her climb.

No dead weight here.

A third of the way up, they reached the end of the rope Sel had dropped for them. Elandra tied it around the nearest boulder, pulling it taut. They climbed in single file. At the top, Daen and Selgrin were waiting to help them onto the shelf.

The moment Copius pulled himself over the edge, the winds turned violent again, threatening to sweep him backward into oblivion. They all scrambled to find anything that provided stability—all but Haril, who seemed immune. The wind bent around him even as it pounded everyone else. He made harsh gestures, and sheets of air came one after another like waves in the ocean.

Copius clung to a rock on the edge of shelf. Why hadn’t he realized what Haril was sooner? The wind kept them pinned while the air elementalist made a run for it through the cavern opening. Only when he disappeared from view did the gusts lessen enough to allow Copius to force his way across the shelf.

By the One, he will not escape. With Daen at his heels, he angled into the mountain, emerging into a large chamber where an encampment had been made within a circle of torches. Haril stood inside, rousing men and calling out orders as he roughly handled a hooded woman. Judging by her frame, she was surely the queen.

A dozen men were grabbing for weapons, a number substantially higher than they had been led to believe. Haril pulled his captive by the arm, directing his men to deal with the intruders while he escaped to the far side of the encampment.

Elandra drew her sword behind Copius. “Let them feel the sting of retribution!” She rushed into a group of three bandits, parrying and ducking as they attempted to overwhelm her. Renaldo followed her into the thick of things, making opponents appear clumsy as he brushed away their blades.

Copius headed straight for Haril and his captive, wrecking two bandits along the way. His sandal collapsed the windpipe of one, and a fist knocked the other flat. Daen had pushed past him to go after Haril. When Copius caught up, they were at the end of a long passageway that ended with an opening in the mountain.

Haril held his captive at the edge. “You wouldn’t want to be the one responsible for the queen’s death, would you?”

Daen dropped his weapon and held out his hands. “You cannot climb down the mountain with her. Let her go, and I promise to return her to the others before pursuing you.”

“Such an honorable offer,” said Haril. “You might take it back if you knew what I really am.” And then with the queen in his arms, he turned and jumped down the mountainside.

“No!” Daen crumpled to his knees.

Copius rushed to edge. This side of the mountain was sheer. Haril and the queen were speeding toward its bottom. In a matter of moments, they would be dead.

A jet of air burst upward, shoving him back into the cavern. He forced his head back out, fighting to keep his eyes open against the blasting airstream. Haril and the queen were riding a channel of wind to the ground.

Copius twisted around. “They’re okay.”

Daen joined him, looking relieved despite watching their quarry drift out of sight.

Elandra approached with the others. “Where’s Haril?”

While she left it unspoken, Copius translated her question to Where’s the queen? They had to be careful. As far as Renaldo and Dubree knew, the queen was sleeping peacefully back at the inn.

Daen was still looking down the mountain. “He escaped. The wind guided him to the ground along with a woman.”

“Then he is lost to us.”

“Not yet,” said a gravelly voice. “Move out of my way.” Selgrin was beginning to shift, growing smaller in size and longer at the arms. Black and white feathers sprouted from his skin, and his lips pulled inward before hardening into a grayish beak that curved downward.

Sadly, the bird wasn’t big enough for Copius to climb on board. Sel shook his feathered head, as if he knew what Copius was thinking, then stepped to the window and took off into the night.

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 33: Troll

 

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 31: The King’s Decision http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-31-the-kings-decision/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-31-the-kings-decision/#respond Sat, 29 Jul 2017 12:01:01 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5089 The King’s Decision

 

 

“Zeph, my friend, is this not a wondrous castle?” said Demetrius. “Perhaps somewhat dated in furnishings, and the food is altogether bland, but the company—the company is incomparable.”

Zeph had been roaming the halls all morning hoping to run into Kreeb. Instead, he’d come face to face with the one person he’d been avoiding.

“It seems you’ve found a lady to catch your fancy,” he said, attempting to hide his discomfort.

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

“Her name, Genawi, flows from the tongue like honey-maple syrup. Her locks are as golden as the petals of a sunflower. And she is the daughter of Lord Ivenane. For once, my father would approve.”

Zeph leaned back against the stone-hewn wall. “By the way she was making eyes at you, I can see you haven’t lost your touch.”

“It was no mastery of mine. We were simply drawn to each other like the trees to the sky. And if you, my friend, had not taken me with you, I never would have met her. It seems I owe you another debt of gratitude.”

“No, actually, you don’t.” It was time Demetrius knew the nasty trick that had been played on him. “You should know something. Back at Duradune, the blood slip I showed you was a fake.”

Demetrius stared blankly at him.

“It was me who wrote your name on it.”

Surprise then certainty crossed Demetrius’s features. “I see what you’re trying to do. You think I should settle down and forget about the debt I owe you.”

No, no, no. Zeph grabbed him by the shoulders. “You have it all wrong. The Council wanted us dead. I lied to you to so you’d help us escape. I’m sorry.”

But Demetrius would have none of it. He shrugged and smiled good-naturedly. “Whatever you did, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it is Dela’s doing. All I know is that Genawi and I were meant to be, and I’m thankful to be here.”

Was he kidding? Demetrius should have shouted at him, sworn they’d never be friends again, and stormed back to Duradune, where at least he would no longer be mixed up in their mess.

Zeph let his hands fall to his sides in resignation. “If that’s the way you feel about it.”

“I do indeed. Now speak no more of this.” Demetrius’s smile faded as he hurried down the hall, likely on his way to see his love.

 

 

Dinnertime in the Great Hall found Zeph in the same seating arrangement as the previous evening, allowing him to keep a keen eye on Queen Pandare.

“Your Majesty,” he said respectfully, before taking the seat assigned to him.

“Did you get a good sleep?” asked the queen in her thick accent.

“Sleep?” asked Zeph.

“After being awake so early in the morning, I expected you to sleep until dinner. If I may ask, what were you doing at such an hour?”

“Mainly arguing. I’m afraid Cahrin’s the jealous type.” If Cahrin had been seated nearby, a savage under-the-table kick would have been forthcoming.

Queen Pandare dabbed the wine from her lips. “I did not know you and she were together.”

“Eternally, I’m afraid,” lied Zeph. He took a bite of cheese served on a thin, crispy piece of bread before continuing. “I am sorry to have woken you. At least His Majesty was not disturbed.”

“Oh? Why do you say that?”

The bread and cheese nearly caught in Zeph’s throat. Of course he wouldn’t know if the king was awakened, unless he had been in the queen’s bedchamber—which he had. “I—I assumed we would have heard him, otherwise.”

“Yes, His Majesty is very loud when disturbed,” the queen said, shooting her husband a reproachful look. “My darling, what did I tell you before? You must be polite and wear the crown Kreeb gave you.” She picked it up and placed it onto the king’s head. “There, it makes you appear so regal.” She finished with an approving kiss on the cheek.

“Whatever you say, my dear.” King Hybris soaked up the attention, his face beaming in a wine-induced shine.

The queen shifted her gaze to the atrium, leaving her husband looking like a discarded suitor.

 

Section Break

 

Despite the queen’s threat, Cahrin made the guest list for dinner after all. She spent the evening much like last, trying to convince the king of Azren’s depravity.

“So do you see, Your Majesty, how during the Great War Azren used my people as fodder?”

The king adjusted the ridiculous crown Kreeb had given him. It took an enormous amount of self-control not to rip it from his head and send it sailing to the atrium below.

“You remind me of her—my queen.”

She nearly spit out her pheasant in protest. If there was one thing she wasn’t, it was anything like Queen Pandare. Chalking his declaration up to overindulgence, she bit back a scathing rebuttal about the king’s resemblance to the wrong side of a shaved uoko.

King Hybris continued gaily, a flicker of spirit behind his bloodshot eyes. “She was born in Einor, that she was. A miller’s daughter. Can you believe it? A miller’s daughter.”

Cahrin could not. Queen Pandare had a decidedly southeastern accent and the stature of no miller’s daughter.

The king’s voice resonated with passion. “She loved this city—and by Chardise, did I love her. The first time I saw her, I knew. They said we were too young. What did they know? Like you and your friends, everything was before us.” Then his expression turned dark. “Only the pages were already written.”

Despite herself, she was curious where the king was going with this story. “What do you mean, the pages were already written?”

“Our river taken away, our land left barren. My queen… so beautiful.” King Hybris rested a hand on hers. The last time someone had attempted that, she had used the offending hand as a scratching post. This time she allowed it. “She would stare out the window at the cloudwalkers, those eyes of hers so blue and too often wet like the ocean.”

There it was again, the window—perhaps the one in the library. And then she realized he wasn’t talking about Queen Pandare at all.

He pounded his fists against the table. “Does anyone remember the splendor of Einor? The rising walls, the stones, silver in the sun.” He continued in a whisper. “Gone. My queen watched from the window as it all went away.”

He bent his head. Cahrin was afraid he might cry.

“Where is she now?” she asked. When the king did not respond, she gave him a light pat. “Where is your queen now?”

Somber eyes looked back. “One day she was not at the window anymore.”

In that moment, she did not wish Asormo razed to the ground. Instead, she wanted to see it in all its glory—its alabaster walls and towering spires with shiny, armored guards roaming the parapets. If only she could summon the city back from the past the way she summoned a creature from Otherworld.

She shook her head, realizing how wrong she had been about King Hybris from the start. He was not the drunken, self-centered ghasiv she took him for. He was a gentle old man burdened with a treacherous young queen and a crumbling kingdom. This poor ghasiv king brought new meaning to the term Undeserving.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the entrance of the guard Bentar. He shot a warning glance in her direction as a line of a half-dozen soldiers belonging to no kingdom followed him in. Trouble, no doubt. Zeph was sinking into his seat. She preferred to face her adversaries with her chin up, and a glare ready.

Bentar stopped short of the king, allowing the lead soldier to approach and give a knee. “M’lord, presenting Lessair Conterprim.”

After an uncomfortable silence, Cahrin gave the king a nudge with her elbow. “Your Majesty.”

The king followed her gaze to the man kneeling before him. “Oh yes. Please rise and state your business.”

“Sire, my men and I have been sent by the Thresher High Command. They have accepted a commission by the Council of the Alliance to apprehend those in your company.”

Just like a ghasiv to hire someone else do the dirty work. Threshers were their own private military force with a training facility nestled in the corner of Paquin. Cahrin always considered them the cockroaches of the swords for hire. Despite their ties to the more nefarious elements on Draza, neighboring kingdoms let them be, since it would take an entire army to displace them.

Lessair straightened his back and marched two strides in place. “Zeph Greymoon, Cahrin of Ilthane, and Raven of Tigren are wanted for treason.”

“Wanted for reason? What reason?” The king shifted in his seat, so agitated that his crown nearly slipped off his head.

“Treason, sire. They are wanted for treason. We must insist that we take them into our care.”

Cahrin was surprise to be named. Sure, she was traveling with wanted criminals of the Alliance—but then again, so was Demetrius.

“Insist that you remove my guests before they have been properly fed?”

“Your Majesty—”

“I’ll have none of that. Besides, I have barely gotten to speak with Lady”—the king hiccupped—“Lady Cahrin.”

“No disrespect, sire,” Lessair said, “but my assignment is to seize the aforementioned once they have been found.”

“Seize?” The king chuckled as if this were the most funny thing in the world. “Your men can do all the seizing they want once dinner is over. Please join us in the meantime.”

“But—”

“I insist, Sir Seizing,” said the king, poorly stifling another laugh.

The mercenary leader muttered a few indistinguishable words before succumbing to the idea that a warm meal couldn’t be all bad. During dinner, the Threshers directed constant stares toward their charges, apparently afraid they might go missing if not vigilantly watched.

The tension in the Great Hall gave way before a dry, squeaky voice. “Your Majesties.” Standing in the atrium next to the mysterious crate from earlier was Kreeb, calling up to them. “I have come for your decision.”

Dusk had set in. The shops were closed, leaving Kreeb the lone figure in the torchlight of the atrium.

A knot twisted in Cahrin’s stomach. If Kreeb had appeared in the Great Hall, she would have struck him down then and there. Even now, he was not safe from her. The stairwell to the atrium was but two rooms away—not much of an obstacle to fulfilling her grim oath.

King Hybris rose from his seat, appearing stable and sober.

“Kreeb, your master makes a gracious offer. My decision—” He stood straight with his head held high, and for the first time since Cahrin had met him, he looked like a king. “I have decided to decline.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” answered Kreeb. “Do you have a reason I can convey to my master?”

“It would be a disfavor to my kingdom to align it with one so black of heart.” And then the king chuckled as if he had just said something of considerable amusement.

A stunned silence pervaded the hall at such forthrightness.

Kreeb recovered quickly. “You have made a grave mistake.”

He pulled a key from his pocket and inserted it into the oversized steel lock on the crate. The wood panel it was attached to flopped to the ground, revealing an enormously tall and spindly creature escaped. It stood twice the height of a human, with lime-colored skin that was pockmarked and hairless and elongated arms that reached nearly to the floor. A bundle of filthy rags crisscrossed its midsection, allowing it a touch of decency. Cahrin blanched as it bared rotted teeth behind contorted black lips.

It squinted against the dull torchlight, a burning contrast to what it had been accustomed to. With an urging from Kreeb, it sprang into action. One claw grabbed the edge of the crate and propelled itself to the top, while the other experimentally swung a club the size of a great sword with a single spike through its center. There it stood swiveling its head from left to right, its red, soulless eyes searching the Great Hall.

While Cahrin had never seen a troll, it was undeniable that’s what it was. Mere stories of such a monster caused restless sleep; witnessing a troll up close could make one forget how to breathe.

Before the emergence of this new threat, she had been planning to slip behind the queen and Zeph, work her way through the adjacent room, descend the stairs to the atrium, and drive her hunting knife deep into the darkened cowl of her nemesis. While Kreeb’s death would not deliver her father from Nebra, it would be a deserving end for this servant of Azren. Even now, she felt sure the troll would not stop her. Its eyes rested hungrily on the king of Einor.

She rose from her seat, ready to take the first step, fulfill her grim oath, and bring meaning to everything she had done since leaving her homeland.

Instead, she grabbed King Hybris by the hand. “Come. This way.”

The movement caused the creature’s blood-red orbs to narrow, glinting in the firelight. And then it reacted.

The troll sprang from the crate with its long legs, crashing through the railing that defined the perimeter of the Great Hall. It bounded toward the king at a speed comparable to an unencumbered warhorse.

King Hybris’s armed escort this night consisted of the guard who attended him while dining and the serious-looking Bentar. Both soldiers stepped up to the challenge. As the troll advanced, she wondered in horror what inspired them to make such a fool’s stand. Most men would have run away or at the very least stayed out of its path. But the guards of King Hybris demonstrated that they were made of a stronger mettle, the kind her own people would have admired.

Bentar stepped into the troll’s path and pushed his sword toward the beast. The other guard came around the back. It was a sound strategy.

Unfortunately, the troll didn’t care a whit about strategy.

With one jab of a clawed hand it speared Bentar’s midsection, then proceeded to toss him over its shoulder and past the railing to the atrium below. He landed with a crunch. Cahrin gasped in horror; loyal Bentar had been dispatched as if he were little more than a worm at the feet of a snow owl.

The other guard sliced at the troll’s backside. Blood was drawn, and the troll did not react favorably. Spinning around, it swung its giant club at the sword-toting annoyance.

Cahrin used the diversion to lead the king toward an exit, where the labyrinth of hallways would make it difficult for the troll to follow. Her last obstacle was the group of Threshers, most of whom stood gawking at the troll. One had plucked up the initiative to cringe behind his superior, but another barred her from passing, unwilling to give up his bounty despite the situation.

She watched the troll shift its gaze from the king to the Threshers between. The mercenaries had the opportunity to turn tail and run. Would the troll, like any beast, instinctively chase down the weak and fleeing?

It seemed she wouldn’t have the chance to find out. Lessair had hopped up onto the table and raised his sword, bellowing a call to arms. “Time to earn our coin.”

The troll lurched forward, and Lessair delivered it a strong hack to the wrist, causing the green abomination to drop its weapon with a grunt. There was no encore. The creature grabbed Lessair around his legs and used him as a human club against the other mercenaries, until he was nothing but a bloody pulp the troll discarded.

The final thresher blocking Cahrin and the king made a run for it. The troll couldn’t have cared less. It turned its full attention back to King Hybris, its mouth gaping, drool flowing down its chin and onto the floor.

“To me, you brute,” called Cahrin. She held her hunting knife at the ready, trying not to shake. She dared not let it sense her fear. “C’mon!”

While its long nails could so easily have been put to immediate use, her taunting bravado gave it pause. Despite its savage appearance, perhaps it was more than a mindless killer.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught movement beneath the tablecloth. Demetrius broke free from Genawi’s embrace, preparing to leave his refuge. What was he thinking? The troll leapt over the table toward Cahrin, while Demetrius slid from hiding mere feet away.

No! Cahrin shook her head vehemently. Any aggression from Demetrius would be suicide.

The troll took one step toward her, then another. She kept in front of the king, sure the troll would lunge at her at any moment.

Demetrius dashed toward it, slashing the leg of the troll with a broadsword he must have picked up from a fallen mercenary. The troll spun about, clamped a clawed hand onto Demetrius’s neck, and squeezed. Blood streamed where its nails touched skin.

Cahrin tore her eyes from the scene. Pushing the king ahead of her, she sprinted for the doorway.

She heard an inhuman shriek and spared a glance. The troll had lifted Demetrius into the air and hurled him toward them. She instinctively flattened herself to the ground as Demetrius soared past her and hit the wall with a snapping of bones.

King Hybris stared in shock at the mangled body.

“Go!” Cahrin screamed.

He launched himself toward the exit, with every step looking back in terror and forward in hope. The troll loped after him with a heavy limp. Cahrin was sure the king would win out when an ill-timed stumble over the hem of his robe left him struggling to keep his feet.

Encouraged, the troll made a giant leap and landed directly between King Hybris and the doorway. The king skidded to a stop no more than an arm’s length from the creature. To his credit, rather than oozing to the floor like a melting candlestick, His Majesty backpedaled. A clawed hand snaked out, swiping him viciously across the chest and neck. He collapsed in a heap of crimson.

The troll might have finished the job had it not received a stitching of throwing daggers down its side. Cahrin watched as its red eyes zeroed in on Zeph standing before the railings and grinning like there was no tomorrow—which for anyone enraging a troll seemed a foregone conclusion.

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 32: Mountain of a Thousand Caves

 

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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 30: Spider Sect http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-30-spider-sect/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-30-spider-sect/#respond Sat, 22 Jul 2017 12:01:58 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5088 Spider Sect

 

 

Renaldo and Elandra were already seated with the king when Daen joined their table. Though it was morning, His Majesty started on the ale early, remarking he needed a drink to knock out his pounding headache. Fortunately, he was still very much sober when the topic of Azren was brought up.

The king sighed morosely. “My father always said Azren would be back. No one ever saw him die except for the sinestre, and everyone knows they can’t be trusted.”

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

King Brelin reminded Daen of Lars, the palace gamekeeper in Nalesc, broad and tall with an inordinate amount of hair growing from everywhere: his head, his arms, his neck, even his ears. Lars always said the more you took on the characteristics of a beast, the more the beasts respected you. If that were true, the king’s moniker of The Bear would be a testament to his regard in the animal kingdom.

“What are Your Majesty’s thoughts on a link between Azren and the queen’s disappearance?” Renaldo ventured cautiously.

“We shall not speak of the queen!” King Brelin roared. Daen shuddered, thinking this was perhaps another reason His Majesty was called The Bear. “Not until she is safely found.”

“Face the facts, Uncle,” said Elandra. “Auntie Terenda is dead, and Azren is likely behind it. All that is left is revenge.”

Daen was floored by the way she spoke to the king, though in her defense, it had been thirteen days since the queen’s disappearance, and King Brelin continued to drink himself into a stupor. Perhaps this was what he needed to hear.

King Brelin rose from his seat in anger. Elandra stood as well. At least twenty years separated them, not to mention a head and shoulders. Despite their highborn status, Daen thought a fist fight was about to ensue.

Ren jumped up, waving a hand between them without the desired effect. “Sire, please understand her candor comes from a niece’s love.”

Their glares intensified.

Daen slid back his chair to give them space. Only the appearance of a messenger averted further escalation.

“Sire.” A wiry page in a red vest bearing Durfolk’s crowned hawk crest took a knee. “I have a message. It is said to contain information about Her Majesty.”

King Brelin gaped, making a motion for the page to bring him the parchment. “How did you come upon this?”

“A PIKE merchant caravan was given it while on the road, sire.”

The seal was broken, Daen saw, but the king didn’t seem to mind. As he read, his lips contorted once in anger and then pressed together thoughtfully. When he was done, he rolled the parchment back up and placed it on the table in front of him.

His voice resonated so that all gathered in the room could hear. “Queen Terenda is very much alive.”

He sat down and continued in a tone meant for those at his table. “She is being held captive, with a promise of a safe return should certain conditions be met.”

Conditions?” Elandra was incredulous. “You’re the lord of Durfolk. They should lay the queen at your feet and beg that their suffering be short.”

“I wish it were so,” said King Brelin quietly. He called for some bread and took a few swigs of ale, conscious that all eyes were on him. It wasn’t until he finished off a chunk of crust that he answered. “The kidnappers are asking for one thousand gold crowns—and that I send my army south to join King Reginald of the Western Kingdoms in his war with Nastadra.”

“That’s not our war!” Elandra slammed her hands against the table. “I say let the southerners beat each other senseless. Besides, it would be paramount to leaving the kingdom defenseless.”

The king turned to Ren. “What does my captain of the guard think of all this?”

“If I may, Your Majesty, the obligation of any king, first and foremost, is to protect his people.”

“There’s nothing that says I cannot keep a militia in Camere. The other cities of Durfolk all have sufficient garrison to protect themselves from bandits. My people will still be looked after.”

“Until Azren comes sweeping down from the north and enslaves your subjects,” Elandra said. “You cannot seriously be considering this.”

“Watch yourself, Elandra,” said King Brelin. “There are boundaries even you cannot cross without consequence.”

She clamped her mouth shut. Ren filled the void.

“Outside of Azren, Your Majesty, who else might benefit from these demands?”

“Hard to say. King Reginald would not try such a stunt. Wily he may be, but he’s no kidnapper. Perhaps some fanatic of the cause. A lesser lord. A knight who has convinced himself it is righteous. Even, conceivably, his son, Prince Peldrin.”

“I would not be surprised if PIKE were pulling the strings,” said Elandra. “The merchant group has tied their power to that of the Western Kingdoms. Should it fall, their influence would be greatly diminished. Let’s not forget it was their caravan that brought the demands.”

“I’m not so sure we’re helping the Western Kingdoms’s cause,” said Renaldo. “If we side with them, what of Paquin? While their lands may lie nearer to us, their interests have always aligned with Nastadra and so must their military might.”

The Bear let his eyes rest on Daen. “What say you, newcomer?”

Daen felt very much a spectator in all of this. “I am gratified to have Your Majesty’s ear but afraid you would not lend it so easily if you heard my words.”

“Spit it out, son. You’re seated at the king’s table. Speak like an advisor.”

“Since Your Majesty insists.” He took a small sip of drink, enough to wet his mouth. “This atrocity brings but one certainty: you are being manipulated. By whom we are not certain, but because of that very fact, we should not so easily acquiesce to their demands.”

The king scratched at his beard reflectively. “I see no choice in the matter. Do what they ask, or lose my beloved Terenda. I have felt the pain of losing her once already. I cannot endure that again.”

“Uncle, you know I would fight in a dozen wars against any odds to protect Durfolk, but this—this is ludicrous.”

The king nodded and for once did not appear angry at Elandra. “I understand you think me a fool to give in to their demands. You all do. Yet what am I but a man like any other? I would do anything and everything for the smallest chance at having her back. My mind is made up.”

“You are worse than a fool, Uncle. You are a traitor.” And with that, Elandra stomped out of the inn.

King Brelin took a long sip, his eyes locked onto the doorway Elandra left through. “She has never known true love.”

“That is so, my king,” said Renaldo. “That is so.”

Daen knew the decision was folly. But what if it were me? He couldn’t help but wonder if he would risk the fate of a kingdom for the mere chance of bringing Elise back. Of course he would. He would do it in a heartbeat. So how could he blame the king?

King Brelin stood abruptly. “I must go tend to the details. I have but one day to deliver the coin and two more to have the army ready to march. General Hassan must be notified at once. Thank you both for your counsel.”

He nodded apologetically to Daen and Ren before leaving the inn with a procession of guards in tow.

They remained at The Bed of Nails Inn that night. When it was suggested that His Majesty return to the keep, given the circumstances, he said something about how he rather enjoyed their current accommodations. It was difficult to imagine how he could have. The rats outnumbered the people, and Daen wished the beds had been made from nails rather than bug-infested cushions so depleted he would have been more comfortable sleeping on the floor—which was where he moved halfway through the night.

It was early morning when King Brelin sent men out with the thousand gold crowns. By nightfall, the king was hitting the ale hard again. Daen suspected he would not go back to the keep for the same reason he’d left in the first place: it reminded him too much of the queen.

“He wants an army ready to march within two days,” the king said in a voice much louder than the conversation merited. “That’s just not possible. These people who have my Terenda are not military men, I can tell you that.”

Although he was drunk, he’d been groomed fastidiously, and for the first time since Daen had met him, he looked like a king.

Ren sat next to him nursing the same flagon he had been for hours. “Of course you’re right, my liege, but think of this: the sooner we start the army marching, the sooner the queen’s released. Besides, if anyone can get an army ready in two days, it is General Hassan.”

“As always, Ren, your level head wins out.” The king downed the remains of his flagon and raised it in the air for more. “I have been thinking, do you suppose she will have been harmed in any way? If—”

A city watchman burst into the inn, slick with sweat and breathing as if he had run the length of Camere in his chainmail armor, which he likely had.

“Your… Majesty…” he huffed, getting down on one knee and bending over at the waist. The king motioned him up. He stayed down a few extra seconds, further catching his breath. “Forgive me. The queen… She is here. She escaped from her captors and made it to the city.”

The king stood so quickly he toppled his chair. “How is she?”

“Very weak, sire. She is being brought to the keep as we speak.”

“Bring her here,” the king ordered. “It’s half the distance from the main gate, and I will not wait to see her.”

“Of course, Your Majesty.” The man stood at attention, perhaps hoping for something that would delay more running.

“You are dismissed. Hurry now!”

King Brelin paced inside the entrance of The Bed of Nails until the queen appeared, leaning on one of the gatehouse guards for support. Her face and hair were filthy, and the clothes she wore resembled those of a peasant’s.

The king rushed to her.

“Terenda,” he said in that delicate tone one saves for their beloved. She slipped a hand up to cradle his cheek before collapsing against his broad shoulder. The Bear picked her up and gently carried her upstairs, with Elandra leading the way.

When the king returned, he commanded that the court physician be summoned at once. A barmaid approached to fill his flagon, but King Brelin swiped it away and turned it over, ale pouring through the slats of the wood table. “I do not need any more drink.”

 

Section Break

 

No longer did Selgrin receive dark looks from those wishing to vent their frustrations. The return of Queen Terenda turned sulking moods into high spirits, though there was a touch of apprehension when the physician arrived. After some time with the queen, he returned wearing a serious expression meant to reflect the importance of his profession.

“Well?” the king asked when it became apparent the physician would not say a word until prompted.

“Her Majesty is very… spent. The ordeal was physically and mentally draining. She could speak but a whisper. Imagine if you will, sire, being held captive for so many days like that.”

“Did they hurt her?” King Brelin demanded.

“No—at least no outward marks. I presume those cowards wouldn’t dare face your wrath, my liege.”

“Good. When can I see her?”

“In her condition, I have prescribed no visitors at this time. However, Her Majesty insisted…”

“I’ll say she did.” King Brelin started for the stairs.

“She insisted…” The physician began again, looking nervous at what he was about to report. “. . . on seeing her niece, the Duchess of Merlow.”

The king stopped in his tracks, scowling. “Some female thing, I suppose.”

“Indeed, I am sure of it,” said the physician.

Elandra proceeded upstairs.

Daen came over to the corner table Selgrin shared with Copius. “A stroke of luck, it would seem, the queen returning.”

“If you believe in that.” Selgrin made a face to show that he didn’t. “Bad luck, good luck, both simply random events—until they’re not.”

“Whatever it is, our work here is done.”

“About time,” said Selgrin. In fact, sooner would have been better. He tired of the prejudice, and the war would only make it worse.

“It’s on to Paquin once we meet up with the others.”

It made sense. East of Durfolk, Paquin was next in line for Azren to target. But Selgrin wanted nothing to do with it. His plan was to hunker down in some out of the way town where no one would care he was a dogar.

“You’re going to have to count me out.”

Copius blew out his half-swallowed mead in protest. Daen just looked surprised. “I wish we both could hide away, my friend, but this war will come upon us if we like it or not.”

Not if I can help it. But before he could reply, the duchess emerged.

“Finally,” grumbled King Brelin when Elandra reached the bottom step.

“Uncle, I need to bring those from the Alliance to see Her Majesty at once.”

“What? Them? I would think a husband—not to mention the king—would have precedence over complete strangers.” Selgrin thought it rather odd himself.

“It would be for only a moment. The queen’s information could be crucial in tracking down those who did this to her. You do want to make them pay, don’t you, Uncle?”

“Of course I do.”

“Afterwards, you will have the rest of the night with her.”

The king motioned them up the stairs. “Get on with it, then.”

Selgrin, Copius, and Daen followed Elandra to the queen’s room. She shooed the queen’s lady-in-waiting out, then opened and shut the door to make sure no one was listening on the other side.

Her Majesty lay on the bed, tired eyes open partway as if she lacked the strength to raise her eyelids to their fullest. The king had had many of her comforts brought from the keep: a hairbrush made from an exquisite pink shell, a jewel-encrusted mirror, a small box open on the nightstand containing various necklaces, rings, and pendants, and even her armoire, stuffed with clothes.

Elandra stared at them each in turn, as if giving silent appraisal.

When she got to Daen, he stared back. “May I ask why you have brought us here?”

“Quite honestly,” said Elandra, “I am trying to figure out if I can trust the three of you.”

“On my honor, you can,” he said earnestly.

“Oh, really?” she asked mockingly. “Then tell me this: Are you truly members of the Alliance?”

Daen opened his mouth. No words came out.

She knew, but what was her game? Selgrin cleared his throat. “Why do you care? Our information on Azren is good all the same.”

“Mercenaries, among others, have been scouring Camere for those who match your descriptions. Wanted for treason, they say.” She pointed accusingly at Daen. “You are especially popular. Nalescian soldiers have been asking for your whereabouts.”

Mercenaries. The Council was sparing no expense to apprehend them. And what was this about soldiers coming all the way from the Isle of Nalesc to find Daen? By the look on his face, it couldn’t be good.

Daen regained a measure of composure. “We…were Alliance members in good standing at one time—though not anymore.”

“So you admit you three came here under false pretenses,” she said.

“I admit our means to the end perhaps were not ideal, but our aim was to get an audience with the king to warn him of Azren’s return. Our intentions were honorable.”

“Not ideal? You lied to the King of Durfolk. That in itself is treason.”

“Then arrest us, if you must.”

“I should have the lot of you arrested.” Elandra took a step toward Daen. “Bet you’d like that.”

“Stop browbeating them, El,” said the queen.

The voice was familiar.

“Maya?” Selgrin was beside himself.

The queen’s face shifted until Mayalordrel Perindroo, senator of Feralintero, was before them. “Would you prefer my rather mundane features, or perhaps someone else?”

Her features changed again, this time taking on the appearance of the private with the orange hair he and Copius had chased only a day ago. “Don’t look so surprised, Selgrin. After all, you are a dogar.”

She changed back to the weary-looking queen. Unlike him, she could take on a specific identity any number of times.

“What are you doing here?”

Elandra shot Maya a stern look, which was promptly ignored.

“Have you heard of the Spider Sect?”

“No games,” said Sel. “Just tell us what’s going on.”

“What do you think I’m trying to do?” She propped herself up in her bed. “It was over twenty years ago when Lydia Calendral, a member of the Council of the Alliance, did not agree with the direction the Alliance was headed. The Council was taking requests from kings and powerful merchants in return for payments to fund various activities. There was nothing nefarious about it—at least not then. But Lydia thought it was beneath the Alliance to do the bidding of others for coin, and not part of their original charter.”

“So even then, there were signs of the Council’s undoing,” said Daen.

Selgrin shook his head. “I was a member of the Alliance back then. What you have to understand is that the Council was in bad shape. There would be weeks when the rank and file weren’t paid. More members were leaving than coming. The medallions ex-Alliance members returned were melted down and the metal sold for whatever could be gotten.”

“And what do you remember about Lydia?” asked Maya.

“The Council kicked her out. They said she was unstable.” He tapped his head for emphasis.

“If you mean ‘they’ as in corrupt Council members, many who are still in power, I suggest a second viewpoint may be in order.”

Selgrin quieted, conceding the point. He had always operated under the premise that the Council had good intentions. Yes, they took payment for jobs, but it was better than the alternative: disbanding the Alliance. At some point, their arrangements had gotten out of control. Greed, hubris, naked ambition—whatever the reason—the Council had crossed the line.

“Lydia set her sights on being elected head of the Council, but in the end she failed. She was infuriated by the loss and decried a weakness in men, that they could not see the error of their ways. She left, vowing to make a new Alliance—a better one, manned by women.” Maya grinned at the turn of phrase. “And thus, the Spider Sect was born.”

“I always thought they were an old wives’ tale,” said Daen.

“As you were supposed to,” Elandra replied. “The Sect exists in the shadow of its illustrious older brother. While the Alliance uses its visibility to gain seats at the tables of the most powerful rulers of Draza, we use our anonymity to perform covert missions aimed at keeping the continent safe and stemming the Alliance’s growing power.”

We?” said Selgrin. He directed his gaze to Maya. “So that’s how it is. You two are Sect members.”

She tilted her head as if to say Does it matter?

“So why are you telling us all this, Maya?”

“We don’t have any other choice.” She looked sidelong at Elandra. “It would be ruinous if the king sent his armies south against Nastadra, especially in the face of what we now know—or think we know. Elandra did what she could, but her uncle is stubborn and lovesick. Having the queen appear was the only way we could stall him. This ruse, though, cannot last long. And when the king finds out I am not his dearest Terenda, he will kill me and send his armies south anyway.”

And there’s the clincher. She knew he wouldn’t leave her to die. “Then we’ll just have to rescue the real queen before that happens.”

Her steely gray eyes softened. “How about the rest of you?”

“We came here to help,” said Daen.

Copius nodded. “Any friend of Sel’s is, well, you know.”

“Good,” Mayalordrel said. “Because you three are about the only ones in the kingdom we can trust with this information.”

“Aren’t you done yet?” They heard The Bear bellow from downstairs.

Elandra grasped the door handle. “We will speak more of this later. I assume I don’t have to remind anyone here that the knife cuts in both directions. If what we told you is breathed outside this room, I’ll make the king aware that you are all fugitives from the Alliance.”

For the first time since they arrived in Camere, Selgrin felt in high spirits. He had left Feralintero believing he would never see Maya again. Her arrival had instilled a little of the hope Copius had been preaching about. Of course, unless they recovered the queen soon, that hope would be quickly dashed.

Downstairs, the king was on his feet. “’Bout time. I don’t suppose there are any more important people to see the queen before I get up there?”

“Actually, Uncle, I’m afraid it was too much for Her Majesty. She fell asleep before we even finished.”

“I think I’ll go upstairs to see for myself.”

Elandra stepped into his path. “After what she’s been through, the queen has earned some needed rest.”

“A king could certainly look at his queen without disrupting her sleep.” He stepped around Elandra and started to make his way upstairs.

“You’ll regret this,” came a shout from outside the inn. The door banged open, and two city guards dragged in a haggard man with threadbare clothes and an unshaven, bloodied face.

The king turned to see what the commotion was about. The prisoner was brought before him, defiant in his struggles.

“Kill me—go ahead,” he said with more verve than his appearance gave him credit for, “and your queen will be executed in the same manner.”

One of the guards spoke. “Lord, this man was spotted outside the city gates. He says he is a lookout to make sure you keep your part of the bargain.”

The king studied their captive. “That is a hollow threat. My best men keep the queen safe. She’ll never be taken again.”

The man stared in disbelief. “Y-You’ve rescued her?”

“She rescued herself,” said the king. “It appears that one willful lady of Durfolk is too much for your lot.”

“That’s impossible. I saw her less than four hours—”

Elandra sent her fist across his already injured face. “The only words to be trusted out of this man’s mouth should be under the coercion of the rack.”

“Take him to the keep,” ordered King Brelin. “Prepare him to be tortured at daybreak. I want his screams to ring throughout the city.”

Selgrin winced. That would only hasten the true queen’s demise—and Maya’s as well. “I’ve dealt with scabs like this before,” he said. The king gave him a deprecating look, as if he had little trouble believing Selgrin had low-life acquaintances. “They’ll move on if one of their own goes missing too long. Our best chance to avenge the queen would be to learn their hideout straight away.”

“He has a point, sire,” said Renaldo.

King Brelin appeared unsure which he would prefer, the escape of his wife’s captors or to follow the advice of a dogar. A satisfied grin came over him. “We will begin immediately—and not with the soft stuff. If we need to flay the skin from his body, then that’s what we’ll do.”

The prisoner paled. “Please, I’ll tell you everything willingly.”

Elandra gave the man another roundhouse to the jaw. “I’ve always said the more pain, the more truth.” She cocked her arm back.

The man cringed against the forthcoming blow. “They will expect my return shortly. If they move to another location, you’ll never find them.”

Renaldo stepped between the man and Elandra’s fist. “Hold it, El. For the sake of urgency, let’s give him one chance.” He turned to the prisoner. “What’s your name?”

“Haril.”

“Now Haril, everyone in Camere knows the torturer likes his job even more than winning at dice,” said Renaldo, with a wink toward Elandra. “So if you tell us the whereabouts of the queen’s captors, you’ll be saving yourself a tremendous amount of discomfort.”

Haril already appeared to be in great discomfort. “Our camp is hidden. No amount of words can describe exactly where, but if you don’t hurt me, I will take you there.”

“And give you a chance to escape? I think not.” Elandra turned to the king. “A few turns of the rack, and I guarantee he’ll be more eloquent than a minstrel.”

“No! No, please. It’s just that they hide within a cave in the Grogund-Dejedru Ridge.”

Elandra snorted. “One of a thousand caves.”

“But I can lead you to the one you’re looking for.”

“How many men will we find there?” asked Renaldo.

“Five. On my life, there are five.”

“Ren, take a company of my finest to their hideout,” ordered the king. “I want them alive, if at all possible. I will make them pay.”

“They have a sentry with a view of the valley below,” said Haril in a desperate voice. “He would see a large contingent approaching. But a small group without torches would have a chance at sneaking up on them.”

“I’ll go,” said Elandra. “And I’ll take those here from the Council with me. Four seasoned warriors should be ample to dispatch of the kidnappers.”

“Better make that six,” said Renaldo. “Dubree and I will join you, in case he is lying about how many there are.”

Elandra engaged the king diplomatically. “Uncle, clearly this is mop-up work. You should have Ren here to protect the queen.” Yes, thought Selgrin, better here looking after the fake queen than with us discovering the true one.

“Don’t you worry about Terenda,” replied the king. “I’ll have so many men here that they’ll outnumber the bedbugs. But I shall not have my favorite niece set off without a proper escort—even if she is one of the finest warriors in the kingdom.”

“Then it’s settled,” said Ren. “We should gather our gear and leave at once.”

At least they had a lead to finding the queen, thought Selgrin. And if Renaldo discovered their deception—well, they would just have to cross that bridge when they came it.

==> Continue Reading Chapter 31: The King’s Decision

 

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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 29: Raiding Party http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-29-raiding-party/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-29-raiding-party/#respond Sat, 15 Jul 2017 12:01:52 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5086 Raiding Party

 

 

It was the type of night that made even the hungriest of animals take shelter. An oppressive chill smothered all warmth, the sky called for a blizzard, and snowflakes were already swirling in the wind.

A young Cahrin savored one last stroll before bedtime while the rest of the Capcecka Clan hunkered down inside their tents beneath heaps of furs.

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

She climbed the thirty-foot rise that overlooked the encampment. She loved it here on Ked’coon. No matter whether she was cooking with the other women or roaming the mountainside alone, her spirit never lacked for company. The wind whispered secrets, the birds told their stories, the crickets kept the beat to the symphony of the night—and the mountain itself was their ancient father, watching in solitude and sometimes sadness.

She also loved her dirksa, her Pa’hu. The very day he was introduced to her, she could tell he was special. He was not like the other boys, brimming with overconfidence. Pa’hu showed a quiet thoughtfulness beyond his years. As he grew older, she admired how fair he was to the land, the animals, and his clansmen in everything he did.

So this new Pa’hu worried her. It was as if the servant of Azren had changed him with black magic.

The snow almost hid Pa’hu’s tent—soon to be their tent, once the ritual of the spirits was performed. The ceremony was less than four full moons away, though she wondered if that day would ever come. She kept expecting Pa’hu to call everything off after the way she had treated him, watching him in secret, questioning his judgment.

Despite her intentions, it was not her place to intervene. At least now that Pa’hu had promised to talk with Schie Bura, this nonsense with Azren would end and hopefully things would return to normal.

Lost in her musings, she almost did not hear the telltale signs of danger that the wind carried on its back.

She sniffed the air, picking up the scent of wet wolf pelts. But wolves would not be about before a storm. She was being stalked by a Dehiar raiding party. They were her clan’s mortal enemies. Last fall, her people had killed their chieftain in a clash over territory, setting off a blood feud in which the new Dehiar leader, Induin, had sworn vengeance on Schie Bura and promised to take Cahrin for a wife.

Cahrin clenched the hilt of her dagger. She would never let that happen.

She squatted, pretending to be distracted by something in the snow. She had three, maybe four excruciating seconds to wait. Enough time for a deep, steadying breath. The patter of feet skimming over snow might have been lost against the backdrop of the wind to anyone else. To her, it was a pounding avalanche rising to a crescendo. But still, she held back.

Only when the Dehiar warrior was upon her, when self-preservation screamed at her from every pore, did she make her move. Twisting around, she pulled her dagger free and thrust high. The point bored into an eye and the man fell at once, shrieking in pain.

Three more Dehiar appeared from behind cover. They wore wolf heads and gray pelts covering their backs and shoulders. Hunched low to the ground, they took on the appearance of their clan animal. They fanned out, forming a semicircle and trapping her against the edge of the rise, though their approach was cautious now that she had shown her adeptness with a blade. Her first victim had already ceased his thrashings, nothing more than food for scavengers.

An initial rush from her left turned out to be a bluff, as well as the following attack. They were testing her. Or maybe they were employing a strategy for her capture. I will not allow it. As a chieftain’s daughter, she had an obligation to die rather than be taken, even if that meant throwing herself from the rise.

As if reading her thoughts, the centermost Dehiar warrior, evidently the pack leader, made a signal, and the clansmen at Cahrin’s flank sidestepped to the edge of the mountain. They would attempt to pinch her between them. She backed up until no footing was left behind her, only cliff. They advanced. Once they closed the gap, she would be forced to fight all three at once.

She glanced down in desperation, tempted to leap off the rise out of spite. Induin would be less than pleased with the outcome. No. As satisfying as that might be, she would not give up so easily. The approaching clansmen were young, not much older than she was. Who’s to say these filthy wolf cubs can take me, anyway?

She charged the warrior on her right. The ferocity of the attack forced him back, and he stumbled in the thick snow. Harsh words from the pack leader stiffened his resolve, and his heavy-handed strokes pounded her dagger, forcing her to give up the ground she had gained and pushing her into the path of the other attackers.

If she slid backward any farther, she’d have a blade in her back.

She cowered, goading her opponent into an overconfident slash, then ducked and drove her dagger between his ribs, laying open his side as if she were preparing game for a meal. He dropped in a heap.

Another Dehiar warrior slid an arm around her neck, choking off her air. She fell, stabbing viciously backward. The grip gave way.

She took a single breath of frigid mountain air before the pack leader crashed into her, bringing her inches from the edge. Pinned to the ground, she twisted but couldn’t avoid the back of his hunting knife. It smashed against her temple. Pain erupted like an open wound. The knife rose above her, this time descending blade first.

The stroke would never be completed. The pack leader collapsed with an arrow in his neck. Blood spilled, saturating the snow beneath her, turning it slippery. She felt herself sliding backward off the rise. She thrust the dead clansman off her, but her momentum only quickened.

Her head was the first to pass the edge. Then her shoulders.

She drove her dagger deeply into the snow, holding on with both hands. It was to no avail. The powder was fresh and could not support her weight. Once her midsection went, the rest of her body would be pulled down with it. She clawed desperately. Her heels dug down. Nothing could halt her descent.

And then an arm scooped her up as if she were no more than a snowball.

Her rescuer surveyed the scene with concern, his eyes pausing at her blood-drenched clothes.

“Are you injured?” Pa’hu asked.

She shook her head. She couldn’t say the same for the Dehiar. The bodies of the Wolf Clan were unmoving, killed by arrow or steel, but all dead.

“Good. I have something I must do. Go to your tent. I will join you shortly.”

He left her there seated on the bluff with only the frozen air to embrace her.

She could tell Pa’hu was still bothered. Perhaps he went to speak with their father and bring everything out into the open.

She bent forward to taste the snow. Its coolness traveled through her. A part of her wanted to lay back down and roll around in the powder. But no time for that. Pa’hu needed her. When Schie Bura reprimanded him for his actions, she would stand with him. That was her duty as his dirksa.

Down the rise she marched, the wind was starting its low howl. The storm would not be held back much longer. As she approached Pa’hu’s tent, she could hear voices inside. It would all be over soon. Over and forgiven.

“Yes, it is as you promised.” The voice was Pa’hu’s.

“And what about the old one?” A high-pitched reply—definitely not her father.

She knew instinctively it was the servant of Azren who spoke. The sibilant sound of his speech had her imagining him as a snake-man.

“I am to speak with Schie Bura this night.” Pa’hu’s voice became louder as he moved closer to the side of the tent where she stood listening. He was pacing like he always did when he was deep in thought.

A strong gust of wind blew a sheet of snow into Cahrin’s face and then another. She could not stay exposed to the icy tirade for long. She squatted low against it.

“And if he does not want Azren as an ally?” His voice grated on Cahrin’s ears.

“Schie Bura is very wise. He will see the way.”

“So young and yet all-knowing.”

Pa’hu responded angrily. “Are you mocking me?”

“It would not serve my purpose to do so. I am only saying that perhaps your Schie Bura does not agree.”

“Then we would end this.” Pa’hu paused. “Then we must end this.”

Cahrin clapped her hands lightly at this declaration.

“Tell me who is braver, the warrior who faces down a bear to save his own life or the one who shares his last morsel of food with another, not knowing when the next meal will come?”

“Speak plainly,” Pa’hu said.

“You are taking the easy path by following your teachings, be it fighting a wild animal or obeying your elders. True bravery comes from putting the needs of others—the needs of your clan—above all else.”

Cahrin pressed her lips together. This snake-man was trying to manipulate her dirksa. While Pa’hu was a cunning warrior, he was trusting and gave great consideration to others’ opinions.

“Schie Bura knows what is best for the clan,” Pa’hu said, but she heard doubt behind his words.

The servant of Azren must have sensed it as well. “But should such responsibility be put on one man who is already so close to death’s door?”

“Schie Bura has many more moons to see. I shall follow Schie Bura as long as he has the will to breathe,” said Pa’hu, his moral certainty returning.

Cahrin rose and proceeded around the tent toward its entrance. She wanted to tell this unwelcome visitor to leave her people and to never return.

“I would not suggest otherwise. But surely the clan would be better off if Schie Bura was stronger and younger.”

“Pa’hu, what is going on here?” A new voice entered the conversation. This time it was her father.

“Schie Bura,” said an astonished Pa’hu.

“Who is it you speak with?”

“This man serves Azren. He brings offerings—”

“I know his kind. There is but one way to handle them.”

As Cahrin came around the tent, she caught her father entering through the flap, drawing his weapon. Then blackness enveloped the tent.

“Father!” she shouted. She peered fearfully into the unnatural darkness. It was sorcery.

Balling her hands into fists, she entered. She was surprised by how deathly quiet it was. She moved where she estimated Pa’hu and the stranger had been standing. Something or someone brushed her side. She took more uncertain steps, waving her hand in front of her, trying to feel her way forward. And then the curtain of black receded, though she soon wished it hadn’t.

Pa’hu held the slumping figure of their father. Blood soaked Schie Bura’s fur vest. A dagger—her father’s dagger—was driven into his upper torso.

“Schie Bura, Schie Bura,” said Pa’hu. Glancing pleadingly toward Cahrin, he gently laid the body on the floor of the tent.

She shook off her stupor and knelt down beside her father to examine the wound. She was one of the clan’s best healers, yet nothing could be done. The single dagger stroke went through his heart. Death had been instantaneous.

She pressed her cheek to her father’s bloodied midsection and began an uncharacteristic act she been doing a lot of lately: she cried.

Pa’hu’s own eyes were wet. “I didn’t mean—” He tried once more. “It was dark. A blade came toward me, and I turned it away. He looked down at his hands accusingly. “We must gather the clan and tell them. I should be punished.”

Cahrin stood with her shoulders back. She felt her face and came away with the blood of Schie Bura. Her eyes were still swimming with tears, but she was determined.

“No. You did not do this. There were two Dehiar raiding parties this night. While you were fighting one group, the other snuck into your tent where father was waiting for you, and killed him.”

“I don’t understand.”

She moved close to him and whispered the rest. “If you killed Schie Buraif you are punished—then Noja will take over the clan. He’ll lead our people to ruin.”

“Not if you denounce me as your dirksa.

“And let you be killed while I become Schie Naru? Who knows if I’d even be accepted? A woman has not ruled our clan for four generations. No. It is like that servant of Azren said.” She could not believe she was reciting the words of her enemy. “You must put the well-being of the clan above all else. You must lead our people.”

“I cannot lie about this,” said Pa’hu.

She grabbed him by both shoulders. “It is your duty. Leave this tent and come back after a suitable time to sound the alarm as if you had just discovered Schie Bura. In this storm, no one will be able to follow the traitorous men who murdered our father and ran off with his only daughter.”

Pa’hu’s eyes widened with understanding. “You cannot be saying this. We are to perform the ritual of our spirits.”

Her heart broke at his words; he didn’t want to call the ritual off. She bit her tongue to feel the pain of her resolve. I too must do this for the clans. “The Dehiar swore this would happen. The clan would believe it.”

“But we fought them off. You were saved.”

“Schie Bura is dead in your tent, Pa’hu. Only if I, your dirksa, had been stolen from you would there be no question of blame.”

Lines of doubt creased Pa’hu’s face. She rose onto her toes and kissed him on the lips. “Do this for the clan.”

“No.” He shook his head.

“Then as your dirksa, grant me this last request. Please, Pa’hu.”

His silence was as much acquiescence as she would get.

“Be brave, and Ofunu will watch over you.”

She pulled her cloak tightly around her and slipped out without another word, leaving a speechless Pa’hu in her wake.

She made her way back to her tent and tossed her possessions in all directions so nothing missing would be noticed. Warm clothes and food—that was all she could risk bringing. Before leaving her tent, she wiped her father’s blood from her face and smudged it on the ground to give the appearance of a struggle.

By the time she started away from camp, the storm had begun in earnest—a demon of the sky, whipping her with sleet, turning her tears to frozen crystals before they could run down her face. She was numb from head to toe despite her layers of clothing. Coldest of all, though, was the ice in the pit of her stomach. It was fear, misery, and self-loathing all at once.

It was loneliness.

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 30: Spider Sect

 

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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