Best Fantasy Books Blog http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog Reviews, discussions, giveaways, and blog about everything fantasy Sat, 03 Feb 2018 13:01:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.5 Tendrils of Darkness — Epilogue http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-epilogue/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-epilogue/#respond Sat, 03 Feb 2018 13:01:54 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5278 Epilogue

 

With No Man’s Land finally behind them, Pa’hu let out a long whoop of elation from deep within his gut. This was echoed by more than fifty thousand Northerners, a sound that pierced the crisp, cool air like one of their feathered arrows.

At his side were Cawa, his personal beliei, and Vergud, who was beating his chest as he wore the grin of ten men. Soon after saving Pa’hu’s life from the uoko, he had been made daroo, most trusted of warriors.

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For the first time since leaving their home, the Northerners of the five clans appeared in good spirits. Pa’hu had to admit that even he had been disheartened of late. After wasted weeks recuperating from his injuries, he had marched his people from the majestic peaks of Ked’coon to traverse the endless expanse of lifeless dirt and rock that made up No Man’s Land.

He wondered how it had been for Cahrin, his eternal dirksa. It was hard to imagine her suffering the deserted land without friends or family, knowing she could not return. He would find her. First he would humble the ghasiv and possibly the armies of Azren as well, but after that he would be with Cahrin once more.

No sense getting ahead of himself. For now, Azren was his ally. All around them, his armies dotted the landscape in hundreds if not thousands of campsites. Pa’hu recognized the kobolds from his dealings with Kreeb. They were the most numerous by far. Then there were dark-faced warriors, tall and muscular with skin reminding him of the cliffs of Ked’coon and gruesome-looking men with skin the color of a fresh snowfall and colorless eyes lacking any spark of humanity.

Sensing the uneasiness of his men, Pa’hu let loose another cry. The army of Northerners responded in kind, and the brotherhood of it calmed their spirit. Asormo, the two-faced city, loomed ahead of them, broken and dirty, certainly not the impenetrable stronghold the stories described.

Pa’hu signaled all but Cawa and Vergud to wait. They strode resolutely up the dilapidated road and across the threshold of the city that had been the bane of their ancestors. Inside the crumbling walls, they passed kobolds showing their pointed teeth as they laughed and a contingent of bloated creatures with noses as big as their heads. Somewhere deeper inside, they could hear the rhythmic echo of an air-splitting crack punctuated by a scream. This disconcerting sound grew louder as they neared their destination.

Turning a corner, they came face-to-face with a towering mountain of blocks. Even Vergud paused to gawk, and he found very little impressive. The structure resembled a great creature of myth, its entrance a maw and two openings three-quarters of the way up for eyes. It was said here the leader of Asormo resided.

Pa’hu tore his attention away from the monstrosity, compelled to discover the origin of the screams. Strapped to a pole was a bare-backed soldier of the Undeserving, a ghasiv. Punishing him was one of the bald, chalky-skinned creatures, bigger than any Pa’hu had seen before, bigger than Vergud. He wielded his three-pronged whip without pity, to the delight of the jeering crowd.

Pa’hu clenched his fist in anger. This sport was not to his liking.

The whip-bearer paused, leaving the soldier trembling and out of breath, as a gray-cloaked figure Pa’hu recognized as Kreeb spoke to him in hushed tones. Whatever was said was not to the soldier’s liking. He turned away, and the whipping resumed. As did the screams.

Pa’hu felt the eyes of his beliei and daroo upon him. He knew what they were thinking. His thoughts ran the same course. These men of Azren were no better than the ghasiv. Maybe worse. It was the type of thing that made him want to denounce the alliance between them.

“Stay here,” commanded Pa’hu, and he pushed his way through the crowd.

Pa’hu carried the burden of being Schie Kalro, leader of the Northerner clans. The choices he made affected the lives of future generations. He understood that Azren was needed to defeat the ghasiv and allow his people a new beginning. As much as he revered the snow-crested mountains and welcomed the everyday trials of what he still considered his true home, he was aware his people could never flourish there. Death by starvation was not uncommon, and Ked’coon’s icy grip claimed many lives. The root of the bloodshed between the clans was not ill will—though plenty of that had festered over the years—but the scarcity of food and shelter.

Forging through the spectators, he was reminded of the words passed down from the elders to young Capkecka warriors: To choose between need and honor is like choosing between a brother and a sister.

Pa’hu stepped into the path of the advancing whip. The three prongs fell harmlessly against his fur vest, ending the monotonous crack and scream.

Kreeb stepped forward. “You’re getting in the way of our fun and games, Northerner.”

Only it wasn’t Kreeb. The voice was not right; neither was the tone. The white-skinned creature stopped and looked questioningly at the man in gray.

Pa’hu bristled. “What you do is no game.”

Anxious cries from the crowd threatened to turn violent when another voice chimed in from above. This time it was Kreeb.

“Pa’hu,” he called down amicably in his dry, squeaky voice. He stood at one of the openings high in the stone structure, his cowl pulled back to reveal his red snout. A comely ghasiv woman draped herself over his shoulder. “Why don’t you come up and we can discuss this, among other matters?”

Pa’hu hesitated, afraid this was just a ploy so the whipping could resume.

“Wait there,” Kreeb continued. “I will send a bulstan down to get you. Drax will not continue until we come to an agreement. Isn’t that right, Drax?”

The other figure in gray stamped his feet in protest. “Make it quick. I sense this one is beginning to break.”

Pa’hu waited for the arrival of another of the white-skinned creatures. “I will be back,” he said gravely to his companions.

Vergud tried to protest, but a shake of his head ended the discussion.

It was a tactical move to leave Cawa and Vergud behind. Pa’hu trusted that if something should happen to him, Vergud would have a reasonable chance of getting himself and Cawa out of the city alive. Doing so from inside the stone structure would be a different matter. He could think of no better place to trap a Northerner than between four walls.

Pa’hu followed the bulstan through the hallways, feeling as though at any moment the ceiling would collapse upon them. He knew it was foolish to believe such. They moved up a third set of steps to a closed door at the top. He followed the bulstan inside.

Kreeb bowed his head to the floor in a nonsensical formality that Pa’hu had yet to understand.

“Schie Kalro, leader of the five Northerner clans,” he said with respect. “Let me introduce you to Her Majesty Queen Pandare.”

The queen was pretty for a ghasiv. Her hair was the color of bear’s blood, and she was dressed in flowing robes with sleeves that could fit a dozen arms. Brightly hued stones adorned her fingers and neck, and a swath of glittering rocks blanketed her wrist.

Pa’hu nodded in greeting.

Queen Pandare responded with a vibrant smile that looked more predatory than welcoming. “It is a great pleasure.” She pursed her lips at the last word. “If I had known Northerners were so…robust, I would have welcomed your people to my domain long before.”

The way she spoke, extending some parts of her words, was foreign to Pa’hu.

“It’s very well you didn’t,” said Kreeb. “The Northerners call this city Asormo, the two-faced city. I can’t see how that has changed during the last four hundred years.”

“What a dreadful thing to say.” The queen looked displeased. “Is my darling Kreeb perhaps jealous of this strong, handsome Northerner?”

“The only feeling your shameless advances inspire is contempt.”

“Hmph.” She turned her nose up with an air of dignity, only to spoil it with what she said next. “You’ll regret those words, you—you little toe wart.” She flounced to the other end of the room.

Kreeb’s mouth parted in a toothy sigh. “And there is a perfect example of why the ghasiv, as your people call them, must be subjugated. One moment they’re your ally, and the next they’ve turned on you like a starving animal.”

Pa’hu stared placidly at the kobold.

“Now,” continued Kreeb, “shall we get to the matter at hand?”

“Let us start with the ghasiv you dishonor outside these walls.”

“I promise you, there is no dishonor in what we do. The human below is a captured enemy, our prisoner. The whipping is merely a method to encourage him to divulge what he knows of Camere’s defenses. Surely you see the wisdom of learning from our enemy.”

Pa’hu shook his head in disgust. He would never consider inflicting harm on an enemy outside of combat. “The clans do not keep prisoners. And if we did, we would not treat them in such a way.”

“Really, Pa’hu,” said Kreeb with a perplexed frown. “How do you expect us to burn Camere to the ground without knowing the most efficient deployment of our forces?”

“You talk of destruction as if it’s a spoil of war. My people raid for food, furs, and weapons. Sometimes to add new clansmen. We do not take from our enemy unless we need something to survive.”

Kreeb appeared startled by his animosity, but he did not back down. “You talk of raids, while I talk of war. In war, you take because you can and because your enemy needs what you have stolen. And during war, Pa’hu, prisoners will come to you by the thousands. Should you let them go and leave them shelter, they will lick their wounds, make new weapons, and march once more against you. Would you see your people die at the hands of an enemy, given a second chance?” When Pa’hu did not answer immediately, he continued. “I thought not. In war, prisoners should be used to gain every advantage.”

Pa’hu shook his head. “There can be no victory in a war won with disgrace.”

“I wish I could convince you the reason of what I preach. But if I cannot, then so be it. I will still do Azren’s bidding with our own prisoners.”

“Even if it insults your allies?” Pa’hu was finding it difficult to keep his rage inside.

“When I first met you, there were five separate clan leaders, isn’t that so?”

Pa’hu nodded grudgingly.

“Some clans were at war with each other, while others were allies to varying degrees.”

Pa’hu’s silence was his acquiescence.

“Now, did your Schie Bura ever take it upon himself to tell the other clan leaders what to do or how to do it?”

Pa’hu could see where this was going. “It is not for Schie Bura to decide the path of the other clans.”

“Think of us as two allied clans,” said Kreeb. “I will do with my prisoners as I like, and you will do with yours however you see fit. Set them free, if that is your wish, or bury them in the ground. I won’t stop you.”

Pa’hu seethed. He very much wanted to challenge Kreeb to battle and force him to set the ghasiv free. Yet he could not. He had a duty to his people he could not ignore. Azren might see this war as a quest for power, but it was different for the Northerners. To some, it was about revenge; for others, taking back what was rightfully theirs. But Pa’hu realized it had grown to be much more. It meant peace, finally, between the clans and a new, less treacherous life for his people.

And besides, he knew Kreeb was right. He could not tell his allies what to do any more than they could tell him. He let his anger drain into the cold stones underfoot.

“Do we understand each other?” asked Kreeb.

Pa’hu nodded gravely.

“Good.”

Kreeb went to the window and clapped his hands. By the time he turned back around, the whipping had recommenced.

Seeing Pa’hu’s sullen face, Kreeb attempted a conciliatory tone. “Do not worry yourself. Soon we shall go our separate ways and fight our separate battles. Your people will not have to be witness to our ignoble actions.”

He beckoned Pa’hu to the window. “Come. What we have here is monumental. Something that may not be seen again for a hundred years or more.” Then, raising his voice, “My dear, please join us.”

The queen barely fit between them, pressing her body to Pa’hu as they surveyed the scene.

“I want the two of you to look at what we’ve assembled here,” Kreeb said. “Before us is the bulk of Azren’s army. To the northwest are the bulstan, strong and unafraid, fierce fighters and loyal. You cannot ask for better soldiers—except perhaps for our Northerner allies. Camped alongside them is a sea of red, my own people. The kobolds are so vast in numbers it is said they could fill the Bay of Edingarn and still have enough left over to equal the size of Mount Siberooth.”

He allowed a moment for the scope of what he said to sink in.

“To the northeast is what I like to call our creature collection.” Notable among a mass of shadowy terrors, Kreeb pointed to a cage filled with enormous, gangly green creatures, reminding Pa’hu of the fabled ridge stalkers that pulled Northerners from mountain peaks. “They are the stuff that demons fear. Queen Pandare can attest to the havoc a single troll caused in this keep of hers. Can you imagine a legion of them? Now you don’t have to.”

“And finally, just beyond our doorstep are the five clans. There’s nothing more fearsome than a Northerner bent on revenge, or so I am told. If these men could last centuries atop the frigid mountains, they certainly can dispose of a few ghasiv.

Queen Pandare stopped swaying against Pa’hu momentarily. “I have not heard this word before, ‘ghasiv’. What does it mean?”

“I am so glad you asked, my dear. Northerners use the term to describe the humans residing in central and southern Draza, those they consider undeserving of the bountiful land they plunder. I find the term very appropriate when describing a woman who has risen to power by marriage and murder.”

Queen Pandare made a slapping motion at the kobold’s snout. “Stop it—”

Kreeb grabbed her wrist and held it firm. “Or what, my dear?”

“Or I will not be so hospitable.”

“It’s too late for that,” said Kreeb, showing his pointy teeth as he smiled. “We already occupy the city. Your citizens have fled. We take what we want and destroy what we choose. What more use are you?”

Queen Pandare’s outrage descended into a mix of desperation and fear. “Oh, don’t tease me, my darling.” She ran her finger delicately around Kreeb’s jaw. “You know there are other worthwhile reasons for my being here.”

Kreeb caressed her shoulder before closing his hand around her throat. “Oh, I don’t think so.”

Leveraging his position, he shoved Queen Pandare out the window.

Pa’hu grabbed for the queen out of instinct. He caught her ankle; she dangled upside down below the window. Everything became still. Then the fall of the whip and a tortured scream from below broke the vacuum of sound.

“You Northerners really do have amazing reflexes,” said Kreeb. “Now let her go.”

“No!” the queen screamed. “Don’t release me. You cannot release me.”

“She will die if I let go,” said Pa’hu. It would be as if he had killed her.

“That is precisely the point. Why would you want to save this two-faced woman from a two-faced city?”

“Don’t listen to him!” called the queen. “Pull me up so I can gouge his eyes out with my nails.”

“That’s the vile tongue of a ghasiv you hear. One undeserving of the very life she breathes. Your people are allowed one small slice of frozen mountain, while the ghasiv keep the best of Draza for themselves. Your people scavenge and spill each other’s blood for the tiniest of meat. The ghasiv simply go to a nearby tavern and ask for food. Your people freeze to death in the bitter cold. The ghasiv warm themselves by the sun.”

“Please…” Queen Pandare gave a desperate cry.

Pa’hu did not glance at her.

Kreeb continued his onslaught. “She is but one ghasiv. When you are on the battlefield, your men will kill hundreds—thousands. Let this first one go. She means nothing. She is nothing. Nothing but another ghasiv trying to steal your land and take your food.”

“Traitor!” screamed the queen, grabbing a knife from her belt. She cocked it back to throw.

Pa’hu released her. Flailing backward, she heaved the blade at Kreeb, who hardly flinched as it sailed wide.

Pa’hu could not tear his eyes away from Queen Pandare, her body turning end over end as she screeched vulgar curses in that thick accent of hers. Everything was happening in slow motion, like the heat of battle, when every knife stroke was recognized in dramatic fashion.

The scene ended abruptly with a snap of her body and bones jarring against the ground.

The nearby crowd seemed to barely notice the annoyance, which fortunately did not disrupt the monotonous cracking of the whip and accompanying scream they had grown to adore.

Kreeb turned from the window with a satisfied groan, as if he were taking a stroll after a feast. He made some cursory comments to his bulstan, which Pa’hu half heard, something about cleaning up and disposing of the remains.

Pa’hu continued to stare down at Queen Pandare. She lay face up, cheeks bloodied, body twisted in an unnatural position. He had barely known her, and already he regretted his actions. Even an Undeserving deserved a better fate.

Another sound of the whip flaying skin. Another helpless cry. This was not how Pa’hu had envisioned the glory of his people’s war with the ghasiv.

He turned around to see Kreeb looking at him with a tactless smile. Pa’hu’s grip tightened around his hunting knife as he strode toward the gray-clad figure. Kreeb glanced at the door he had sent the bulstan through only moments ago. His smile turned to worry.

Pa’hu stopped in front of the kobold. One hand pulled the knife free of the scabbard; the other grabbed at Kreeb’s wrist. A downward slice set the blood flowing freely.

Another slice, this time at his own hand, and Pa’hu clasped it to Kreeb’s. They stood side by side, blood-soaked hands entwined, sealing their covenant.

“Allies,” said Pa’hu. It took enormous willpower to speak that word, to make the blood covenant, and more to keep himself from breaking Kreeb’s neck. He abhorred what was done, what was being done—using pain to elicit secrets, throwing a ghasiv queen out of a tower.

But Pa’hu had endured far worse for his people. Years of struggle, of cajoling, of badgering. Years of war. Lonely years. What were these fresh dishonors but scrapes from a thorn bush? He did all of this for his people, and he would do more.

It was like Kreeb himself had said to Pa’hu so long ago: true bravery comes by putting the needs of others—the needs of your clan—above all else. Even his dirksa believed this to be true. For her and every Northerner who ever breathed or came to pass, he would have this alliance.

The whip cracked like thunder, followed by a worn-out scream.

“Allies,” Kreeb returned weakly.

Leather on skin echoed dully in Pa’hu’s ears, eliciting a mournful whimper from its victim that petered out. A grumbling arose from the spectators as their fun ended.

 

 

book-cover-with-spineThis concludes Tendrils of Darkness. Look for book 2, The Ebon Monk in 2019.

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 50: Final Confrontation http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-50-final-confrontation/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-50-final-confrontation/#respond Sat, 27 Jan 2018 13:01:20 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5271

Final Confrontation

 

Years of sentinel training had taught Daen that there was only one replacement for careful planning and patience—dumb luck. They would need plenty of it to get through today.

No sooner had they left the sea of encampments behind than a single rider came into view. It was too dark for him to make out the features of the rider, but the king obviously knew him well enough to recognize him by little more than his silhouette.

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

“Rives,” called His Majesty. “Is that you?”

Rives came a little closer before turning off course, kicking his horse to a sprint. The king urged them to pursue. Burdened with armor and weapons, Rives certainly could have lost them if he chose, but he remained just in sight the whole way.

The passed the Old Road, and Rives brought his horse around to face them. Daen’s heart spiked at the sight of bulstan among the trees—at least fifteen or twenty—their white bodies invisible unless you were looking for them.

King Reginald called for a halt in the middle of the crossroads, an apt location considering whatever transpired during the next several minutes would define the direction of the war. “Rives, what’s gotten into you?” His face had reddened from exertion, and a layer of sweat covered his cheeks and forehead.

Rives tilted his head back leisurely. “So good of you to join me.”

The lack of deference was not lost on the king. “Have you grown too powerful to respect your liege?”

“I have only one true liege, and I’m afraid it’s not a waddling fool with a crown on his head.”

“I’ll have you arrested for such words. But first, you brought me out here. I want some answers.”

Rives flashed a disparaging grin. “Ask me what you wish to know, Your Highness.”

“Were you responsible for the ambush of your own caravan?”

“Not me personally. But I am the one who set the plan in motion. If only they’d done a better job.” His eyes darted to Biltrin for a brief moment.

“And you had Nastadra blamed?”

“Naturally.”

“But why? I see no benefit to PIKE for war to break out.”

“Clearly, no. But try to expand that feeble mind of yours as you have the rest of your body, and the answer may come.”

King Reginald straightened in the saddle.

“If I may, sire.” Daen crossed his horse in front of the king’s to prevent him from doing anything foolish. “It is because he serves Azren. The rumors are true. Even as we speak, the Afflicted One gathers his armies. With the two powers of the south at war, his work will be that much easier.”

Rives clapped his hands together. “Ahhh, someone who understands the nature of war and politics.”

“I will not allow it.” The king’s jaw was set, and Daen got a glimpse of the warrior beneath.

“You have not the power to stop me. Reveal yourselves, my bulstan!”

The white-skinned creatures materialized from the trees to surround them.

“When I tell your son how you’ve been murdered by warriors of Nastadra,” continued Rives, “he will do anything for vengeance, even ally the Western Kingdoms with Azren.”

“You would not.” The king was shaking in anger.

“For the sake of my people, I would do most anything.” Rives dropped his human disguise for a moment to reveal the form of a slick-haired dogar with a predatory smile, before becoming Rives once again. “And now you shall die, old man. Bulstan, attack!”

King Reginald’s guards closed around him protectively. The white warriors seemed every bit as dangerous here as they had at the farmhouse, and yet Daen abandoned the king like he knew he must.

Urging his horse past the bulstan, he charged Rives, swinging his hand axe back end first. It hammered Rives in the chest, unseating him. Before the dogar could clamber to his feet, Daen had the sharp end of the axe at his throat.

“Capture the king, my bulstan. Leave no one else alive!” Rives glared defiantly, but his expression soured as the advance of the bulstan behind Daen fell apart, the creatures crumbling as if they were made of sand. He lay in disbelief as two of the king’s guards marched over their remains and grabbed him roughly, one on each side, yanking him to his feet.

Daen relieved him of his weapons. But the merchant master was far from broken. “I see why she liked you. Well-built and yet not your typical warrior dolt. It’s too bad she had to die.”

“Of whom do you speak?” Daen asked, though he knew the answer.

Rives transformed. The guards now held the lithe white arms of a girl with flowing red locks and brilliant green eyes.

“Save me,” Elise exclaimed.

“Stop that!” Daen grabbed the false Elise and shook her. “You defile her image.”

But Rives would not abandon the act. “Daen, do not let them torture me.”

This charlatan may have looked and sounded like her, but the words were not her words. “You are not real. You are not her.”

“You could have saved me. You were too late.”

This had gone too far. Daen wrapped his hands around her delicate neck in both hands. “What do you know of her death?”

“I can’t breathe.” She coughed, and her eyes watered.

As much as he knew it was not her, he couldn’t continue. He let go. “Say what you will and answer for it.”

The figure transformed once more. The face wrinkled, the forehead widened, and the dress became a robe of navy blue with gold embroidery. Daen recognized Tupilid, leader of the Council of the Alliance when they had been assigned that fateful mission.

“Go forth to Ankara and find out more about these disappearances,” the figure said, “then report back to us.”

Daen had heard those exact words before. So had Elise and Zeph—all of them. Tupilid had been found dead in his chambers later that day. He must have been dead before then, before those words had ever been spoken.

“It was you,” Daen said. All this time, Zeph and the others had insisted there was no significance to what had happened, but now here was proof. “At Azren’s bidding you posed as the head of the Alliance. You sent us on that mission. What purpose did that serve?”

“I was simply following orders.” The dogar’s lip curled, and Daen wanted to wipe it clean as badly as he wanted answers.

“You know more. Tell me now, or you will wish you had.”

The guards cast him warning looks.

“I can only speculate.” The voice was still Tupilid’s, but the contemptuous tone was all Rives. “The mission could have been merely a distraction, or perhaps a preemptive strike on the gems—or maybe, just maybe, it was to kill a single girl. Imagine my delight if you had all followed the redhead into death.”

“That’s enough,” said the king.

Daen barely registered the king’s words. “I suspect you will speak more candidly on the rack.”

“Those high-pitched squeals of hers were worse than a wounded animal,” said Rives. “You’d think she would have had more pride than that.”

Daen sent a fist at Rives, but it never landed. The guards had released their captive and tackled him instead.

What were they thinking?

His face was slammed sideways into the dirt, but he could see Rives sprinting away and vaulting onto his horse. With a swift kick, he was off with guards giving chase.

Daen was allowed to rise but held tightly at King Reginald’s command, as if they thought he was the dangerous one.

He yanked at his captors. “Let me go after him!”

“You’ve done enough, son of Lywrin.” King Reginald placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “My men will take it from here.”

 

Section Break

 

From the start, Raven had never planned to allow Rives to become a prisoner of the king. What would that have accomplished? More pawns moving about the board, no doubt. He had played his part and done exactly as he agreed—at least until the very end.

The sentinel had made it easy, brimming with rage. All it took was a nudge of illusion to give the guards the impression he was intent on killing Rives.

And thus, Rives’s escape had been secured.

Raven burst from the trees and urged his mount alongside Rives. A moment later, he hurtled himself from the saddle, colliding with Rives, sending them both to the ground. Before the servant of Azren could rise, he stood over him with a sword unsheathed.

Rives’s eyes widened. “M-Master, is that you?”

Cloaked as he was in the dark, Raven imagined he looked very much like Azren. “Soon you will learn what it’s like to have everything taken from you.”

“You’re not—” Rives sat up, no longer looking like a frightened kitten. “I know who you are.”

“You cannot presume to know what I keep secret from myself.”

Rives clawed at the dirt. “Gyste should have allowed me to kill you.”

Gyste. The mention of the name stung more than if Rives had flung the dirt into his eyes. Perhaps Rives would tell him what Gyste would not. “What do you know of my past?”

“Only that you were once Azren’s loyal dog.”

He studied Rives’s face for clues of deception. “Your lies will not save you.”

“You don’t remember.” Rives gave a snide laugh. “I would have thought the atrocities you committed would burn themselves into your memory.”

“I remember being held captive, tortured until I wasn’t sure if the cries I heard were my own.” He yanked back his cowl. “Tell me, is this the face of a loyal dog?”

Rives shuddered, but Raven could tell it was not for him. “The master has ways of making people do what they might not otherwise.”

Raven was no servant of the Afflicted One, of that he was certain. And yet… “How did I escape his domain?”

Rives attempted to stand, but Raven allowed him only to his knees.

“Escape? You came and went as you pleased, until one day you went and never came back.”

He didn’t remember any of it. Truth or lie, what did it matter? There was only the future to look toward.

“I will return, this time as his executioner.” There was a surge deep within his bowels, a longing that was more powerful than any emotion. “Every day must end and every servant of his shall find their life snuffed out with the light.”

Rives gave a light chuckle. “You do not frighten me. I am much too valuable alive, to your king, to Azren. Long after your body is buried, I will be here.”

Raven pressed his sword to Rives’s midsection. “You are wrong about that. Wrong about a lot of things—about the bulstan coming to your aid, about your current usefulness to anyone.”

“The bulstan—” he started, then the weight of it hit him like a charging steed. His face wilted in despair. “It was a ruse all along, wasn’t it?” Raven stared impassively, letting the truth writhe inside his enemy. “The parchment the Dersimeysous gave me—genuine, I would say…” Rives closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Of course he lied to me about the meeting—and the bulstan. They never existed. You did that.”

No, you did. Illusions are best served to the willing. He heard the sound of hooves from around the bend. “We have run out of time.”

Rives’s eyes flicked to the sword held at his chest. “Do not kill me. I know things about Azren. Things that can help the humans in the coming war.”

“I care not for the war kings make.”

“Then think about yourself. I can make you wealthier than any lord.”

All the coin in the kingdom would do nothing for me. No, it was these little victories that gave him the fortitude to endure. “Wealth and power are mirages. There is only life and death.”

The pounded of hooves neared.

“There must be something you want. If not wealth, then power. Your own kingdom, perhaps. Ask and you shall have it.”

Raven bent down inches from Rives’s face. “Grovel for your master.”

Rives stared back unblinking. He must have remembered repeating those same words on the Thulon Road. “Forgive me. I—I want to live.” He interlocked his fingers and shook his hands piously. “I will say—do—anything. Anything.

“Then you truly are his servant.” Raven let his sword slide forward to a gut-wrenching scream. “Louder, so Azren can hear you from the Blighted Lands.” He twisted the sword to more strident cries.

The horsemen were almost upon them, flying fast.

Rives’s face paled on the brink of death’s door. Still, he managed to speak. “Humility and obedience.”

Those words—lessons I live over in my nightmares.

The dogar’s breaths were ragged. His body convulsed. “You…will serve him…once more…”

Raven wiped his sword clean of blood. Another pillar destroyed.

While it was only the beginning, every conquest started somewhere—a skirmish, a surprise attack, a battlefront—until finally there would be a siege the likes of which had never been witnessed before. Many would die—thousands, if not tens of thousands, the hardened and the innocent. Entire armies sacrificed for a slight advantage on the chessboard. It would take all of this and more for a single opportunity to destroy Azren.

And Raven would not let this opportunity go wasted.

 

 

 

book-cover-with-spineReturn next Sunday to read the conclusion to Tendrils of Darkness

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 49: Secrets Revealed http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-49-secrets-revealed/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-49-secrets-revealed/#respond Sat, 20 Jan 2018 13:01:42 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5270

Secrets Revealed

 

Circling Copius, the owlbear appeared to loosen up, taking long, thunderous strides. He dared not get back within close quarters of the beast; his still-throbbing back was a reminder of that. He shifted his feet and readied himself for the next altercation. Darkness had set in, and only a handful of torches lit their skirmish.

An awful squawking startled him. Shrill, repetitive chirps—it took him a moment to realize they came from the owlbear. On the eighth ear-pummeling screech, the creature charged with such ferocity that the entire crowd held its breath.

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

It was instinct, or perhaps training, that saved him. Without thinking, he used ericoun, the kertaskai ability he had mastered to ascend to the Azure Order. More intense than lightning strike, which allowed him to deliver a punch or a kick at unmatched speeds, ericoun involved short bursts of movement by the entire body. To anyone watching, it would look as though he had vanished and then appeared several feet away.

The audience gasped as the owlbear ran through the spot he vacated and obliterated a wooden pole used by acrobats earlier in the day. It spun about, confused, until it spotted Copius. It rushed him once more. Again he invoked ericoun, and again the owlbear barreled past his last position as spectators scrambled out of its way.

Copius took short, heavy breaths. The one drawback of ericoun was the toll it took on the body—and he wasn’t in peak physical condition to begin with. Strenuous exercise for him involved chasing down a food cart.

Another charge, another escape. His chest heaved, his heart hurt. He wasn’t sure how many more times he could use ericoun before collapsing from exhaustion.

The owlbear clawed the ground, preparing for its next attack, when a dangerous idea struck Copius: the kertaskai known as xo or beating heart. While monks were required to perform xo to ascend to Ebony, only a handful had truly mastered its intricacies. It involved controlling another’s heart rate—speeding it up, slowing it down, or even stopping it.

He had never attempted xo before, though he had studied how it worked. To attempt it now in these conditions would be experimental at best and at worst downright hazardous to his health. There had been a case where a monk of the Auburn Order had inadvertently stopped his own heart while attempting this kertaskai. But Copius had no other choice. He needed to strike back, to stop the owlbear. Now. For his own safety and that of the spectators. Before he was too exhausted to even try.

Now how exactly does this work again?

The owlbear exploded toward him. He raised his arm, palm quivering. A rush of wind accompanied the terrifying attack. He held his ground; if he was to be gouged by a giant beak and trampled like a hundred blades of grass, so be it. The owlbear came in a blur. Copius squinted. He had grave doubts that he had any chance of succeeding.

 

Section Break

 

Zeph ducked back behind the sill.

Rives was inside the room with a lanky human who was pointing the back end of his spear into a cage. Zeph closed his eyes and focused on listening.

“Wertlin, kill the Dersimeysous and dump him in the river.”

Kill? Dump? Peeking over the sill, he saw Rives leave the room and the other man—Wertlin—turn his spear end on end and plunge it into the cage. The exclamation of pain that followed was unquestionably Sel.

By the time Wertlin could make another attack, Zeph was initiating one of his own.

He dove into the room launching a spread of throwing daggers. The first two missiles slid by the spearman’s arm, but the other found purchase in his shoulder. Zeph sprang at Wertlin, unsheathing Venytier. His best chance was to get inside the spear’s reach. The battle would be won or lost on that alone.

Wertlin understood this as well, backing up as he tried to bring his spear to bear. Zeph did not allow it. He pressed forward, raining a barrage of attacks. He cut, he stabbed, he chopped. Wertlin blocked most of his strikes, wielding the spear defensively like a staff. But he could not turn everything away. Thrusting, Zeph grazed Wertlin’s waist. A backhand drew blood across a cheek. It was only a matter of time before he scored a serious wound.

Wertlin dropped his spear low, providing an opening, and Zeph went in for the kill. Mid-lunge he realized his mistake. A free shot had been given for the opportunity to make a counterstrike—a trade he shouldn’t have allowed, a trap he shouldn’t have fallen for. Venytier narrowly missed. Wertlin snapped his spear shaft against Zeph’s temple. A flash of light preceded a descent into darkness, and when he came to, he was on his back with the point of a spear streaking toward him.

He twisted left. The spear scratched wood. A backward roll brought him to his feet on the defensive. A jab, just blocked. A slice scraped skin. Panting now. Another thrust left his ear wet and sticky. A few fingers over and Zeph would have lost an eye; a few down and he would have been finished. He was no longer too close for the spear’s bite, and Wertlin was taking full advantage.

He sprang away and bounded for the outskirts of the room. Wertlin remained patient, jabbing when the opportunity arose, but mainly waiting for Zeph to fall prey to exhaustion.

This could not go on for long. Zeph’s sweat mixed with the river water. His chest heaved, his ear a screaming reminder of what could happen should he engage.

A leap to the top of the cage put him in a better tactical position. At least he could catch his breath. Three breaths, to be exact. Enough to come up with a plan.

When the spear came angling in, he knocked it downward and used his heel to pin it to the cage. Then in the same instant that Wertlin tried to yank it free, he released his hold on it. Wertlin stumbled backward, lurching and off balance. Zeph pounced. He landed on top of his opponent, whipping Venytier to his throat. Wertlin grabbed his wrist; the blade jittered a finger’s breadth from piercing skin. Zeph sunk his weight into the dagger, edging it closer, slowly driving it home.

Wertlin groaned. His lips curled, and as his expression changed, so did his face. It became rounder. Sharp features turned craggy, like rock hewn from the mountain. His hair lengthened. His neck thickened; so did his fingers and wrists. Zeph was looking at a rogrom—renowned warriors and tireless workers. Their kind held the strength in their hands to crush a rock or crumble an assassin’s wrist.

He cried out in pain, and Venytier dropped from his grip. Meaty fingers wrapped around Zeph’s neck, and he was flipped over onto his back. Legs that ended at the knees became weights on top of flailing arms. He could not breathe. He could not budge. He could only look up at the rogrom’s stoic features as the last of the air was squeezed from him.

But the end never came. The iron grip loosened, and the rogrom’s face darkened, turning purple before his body toppled over. Zeph lay gulping air like a canteen of water. Face down beside him sprawled the rogrom corpse, a black snake latched onto the back of his neck.

Zeph propped himself up with his elbows. “What the—”

The snake unlatched and stared at Zeph, swaying with a hiss. Was he to be its next victim? Strangled to death or poisoned. When it came to Dela, if it wasn’t one thing, it was another.

Then Zeph noticed the cage was empty. The snake’s tongue shot out, its mouth curling ever so slightly upward, as if the snake were smiling.

 

Section Break

 

Cahrin was in trouble, trapped beneath a tempest of boots and sandals as spectators jockeyed to watch the monk and tremal brawl. And the ghasiv said her people were barbaric. A cane jabbed painfully into her face; a boot spiked her hand. She was kneed in the spine as one spectator fell on her.

While clearly the ghasiv were tenderfoots who bartered for their food and slept in warm, soft beds, when it came to getting what they wanted, they became vile, destructive animals. She vowed that no matter how many years she lived among them, she would never succumb to their base tendencies. She was and would always be a Northerner. And no matter how many ghasiv stomped on her, she would not stay down.

She grabbed the nearest ankle and yanked its owner to the ground, dug her nails into the sandaled foot of another. Her xaffel turned just as furious, biting and slicing through anyone unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. Cahrin climbed to her feet bruised and cut and roughed up, but not held down.

A ghasiv invaded her newly acquired space and discovered an elbow invading his jaw. Others shoved and jostled her, angling for a better view. She was half tempted to send the tremal chirping through the ranks of the spectators just to teach them a lesson. That was before she got her bearings and realized more urgent matters required her attention.

The battle between two pacifists had turned into a fight to the death. The tremal was barreling toward Copius. He vanished from its path, reappearing farther away. Impressive, but she could tell it was not without consequence. Copius’s entire body heaved with exhaustion. The tremal clawed the ground before going after her friend once more. He stood firm, holding up a hand as if that would save him.

She could not allow this to continue. If he was hurt, it would be on her head.

Stop! she commanded, squeezing her will around the tremal’s spirit so tightly she worried she might kill her outright. And the tremal listened, freezing inches from Copius. He beamed like a simpleton, turning and bowing to his audience as if it were all his doing. Idiot. She felt the tremal longing to move, extending her claw to tear Copius’s tender and exposed neck. No!

Then she noticed more trouble: a group of guards wading through the crowd behind the tremal, drawing weapons. Cahrin’s heart swelled for the gentle giant whose aggression was borne out of love for her children. So sorry was all Cahrin could convey.

The tremal sensed the approaching danger, but she did not know which way to turn; the guards were approaching from all sides. Swords raised, spears leveled. Go home! Steel struck from multiple directions, slicing and piercing through fur and flesh, meeting no resistance as the tremal turned translucent, fading into nothing right before them.

 

Section Break

 

Daen woke to a wet rag dabbing at his face. His bleary eyes made out a girl standing over him, her red hair tickling his cheek. For a moment, he thought it was Elise.

A booming voice broke through his fog. “Good. He’s awake. Give him room. Give him room!”

It took a moment for Daen to realize he was on his back. The woman tending to him stepped away to reveal he was inside a large room of a tent.

He struggled to his elbows. Before him was King Reginald, seated on an intricately carved throne built for travel. A velvet robe in the blue of his kingdom covered a black doublet with large gold buttons and a maroon silk shirt. Platinum and gold rings adorned his plump fingers, one inset with an enormous blue stone that matched the color of his robes and leggings.

Surrounding the king stood more Western Kingdom guards than Daen could easily count—and the king’s advisor, Master Hedun.

Daen picked himself up and took a knee. His head swam from the effort. Biltrin was already showing fealty beside him.

“Rise,” His Majesty commanded. “Give me your names.” The king looked toward the man-at-arms first.

“Biltrin Gronth, corporal in the lord’s army.”

“Daen Thornver, prince of Nalesc.”

Master Hedun folded his arms in front of him. “That is not what he said before.”

“That’s quite enough.” The king turned his eyes to Daen. “Daen, you say. The name sounds familiar, but King Lywrin has six sons. It is hard for one of my years to keep track of them all.”

Though the king’s voice was vibrant, he was well past middle age. While wavy and plentiful, his hair was white like snow. A frame that might once have been chiseled was now bloated.

“Actually, he has seven sons and two daughters,” Daen replied.

The king nodded ruefully. “That he did. I have had my fill with one, though Peldrin always was such an active child. I gather by now it’s the grandkids keeping the old coot busy.”

“As you might imagine, sire.” Daen took an instant liking to the king, who was not half as weary-minded as he let on.

“I do not mince words. So I ask you, are you truly King Lywrin’s son? Chardise help you if you are lying.”

“Yes, his youngest.”

“So how is your father?” he asked amicably. “It’s been a while since I hefted this oversized body of mine to the Isle of Nalesc. I understand he’s making progress on the fleet.”

It was encouraging to hear the king speak in such a way. His father and King Reginald had had some sort of falling out at one time, and Daen did not know how deeply it ran. Apparently absence did make the heart grow fonder.

“I would not know, Your Majesty. I have been a stranger to my home for more than three years.” A wave of nostalgia welled up inside him, giving further evidence to that time-honored saying.

“Three years!” The king exclaimed with such force he went into a fit of coughing. When it was over, his eyes were watering. “Why would a son leave his father for so long?”

“I was avoiding an ill-fated match.” To be with Elise, more precisely. Now that he had revealed himself, the Nalescian soldiers searching for him would force him back to the isle to wed. It was a responsibility he had been fleeing far too long, certain a new life would spell the death for whatever remnants of Elise that still resided inside him.

Master Hedun cleared his throat diplomatically, although Daen could see the man was highly annoyed. “How can we be sure that anything he says is true?”

The king gave Daen an apologetic look. “My most irritating advisor has a point.”

“I will prove it.” Daen remembered the king as a youth, lean and full of vigor—a far cry from this version. “When I was young, my brother Perute and I often watched you and father in the late evenings after everyone else had left. We would spy from one of the staircases that flanked the Great Hall, listening while you two reminisced of glorious battles and equally glorious women.”

The king looked thoughtful. “If you are not of Lywrin’s blood, you are clever, my son. Yet this information alone does not prove you a prince. You could have visited the castle to know its lay. It is not uncommon for kings to speak well into the night, and all talk eventually leads to war and women.” He chuckled. “I cannot say I’m convinced.”

“I remember,” Daen continued, “one particular instance when a lord of the Western Kingdoms spoke adoringly of a lady with long black tresses that reached to her ankles, a beauty like none other, a woman named—”

“That’s quite enough.” The king’s chubby cheeks were burning.

Daen could not help a small smile. “As you wish, sire.”

“Tell me, Prince Daen of Nalesc, what brings you here?”

“I was asked to accompany this man-at-arms until he was brought before you. He has vital information, the type others would go to great lengths to keep hidden.”

The king turned to Biltrin. “Out with it.”

He began tentatively, but once Biltrin got going, his account of the caravan raid sounded much as it had back in the woods.

When he was done, Master Hedun was at the king’s ear. “I told you this would be a waste of your time.”

The king held up a staying hand to his advisor. “I do say that is an incredible tale.”

“On my life, it’s the truth,” said Biltrin.

“Ask him, Your Majesty, what proof he has for what he speaks,” said Master Hedun.

King Reginald looked vexed. “I was getting to that.”

“Of course, my liege.”

“My advisor doesn’t know when to stop advising, though I regretfully admit his counsel is useful at times. Corporal, I suppose you have some proof of this.”

“It is a matter of record I was there, my lord.”

Master Hedun crossed his arms matter-of-factly. “A record that counts you missing or a deserter.”

“Is there anyone who can back up your story?” His Majesty asked.

Biltrin shook his head. “The others… They are all dead.”

The king turned to Daen. “You believe what he says is true?”

“I do, sire.”

The king let out a long sigh. “I too would like it to be so. Then I could finally convince my son of Rives’s true character—a conniving son of a bastard, if I ever saw one. But I cannot be blind to the reality of the situation.”

He placed a hand on his stomach. “You know, I was not always this way, old and well fed. There was a time when I led men into battle. So I know a thing or two about the ways of war. And what strikes me as odd about this story is that all my soldiers died, every last one—except you.” He pointed at Biltrin. “It would seem the luck of Tymius was on your side, or that’s what you might have me believe. I say it’s just not so. If your account is true, how could these bandit mercenaries have been so careless as to allow a survivor?”

Both Daen and Biltrin stared back at the king in silence.

“Unless you can answer that question, I’m afraid I cannot believe this story of yours.”

Daen recognized they had come to an impasse. He knew of only one way to convince His Majesty. He turned to Biltrin. “Tell him. Tell him why you survived.”

Biltrin shunned Daen’s gaze. Master Hedun looked fiendishly satisfied, and Daen was certain that at any moment they’d be asked to leave.

He could not allow it to end here. Too many lives rested on their getting through to the king. “Then I will say it, though I do not feel righteous in making it known. Sire, those men of Rives’s were not careless. As far as they were concerned, your men were dead or mortally wounded.” Biltrin looked up at Daen with an almost sorrowful expression. “Only they did not count on one thing: that Corporal Biltrin is a lycanthrope.”

Astonishment erupted throughout the room. Even the guards, trained not to eavesdrop, gave away their indiscretion with sharp intakes of breath.

“That’s preposterous!” exclaimed Master Hedun over the shoulder of the King. “It’s just one outrageous lie after another.”

“Really, Hedun, that’s my ear you’re hollering into.” King Reginald palmed an ear in annoyance. “So you say a conspiracy by the head of PIKE. Mercenaries dressed as soldiers of Nastadra. And let’s throw in a lycanthrope for good measure. This is either one fantastic yarn or an elaborate string of events that even the bards will have difficulty singing about.” He chuckled. “I’ll give you one thing, son of Lywrin, you adequately answered why this man could be alive. Of course, now you have the tougher task of convincing me what your friend is.”

Daen hoped he was not digging himself a deeper hole. Everything was riding on this. “Go ahead, Biltrin, convince him.”

Biltrin returned a stone-faced stare. “If you mean for me to turn into a wolf before your eyes, you’ll be waiting a very long time. Do you know what they do to lycanthropes in the Western Kingdoms? They don’t keep them in the army. Kill them on sight is what they do.”

“Maybe there is a reason for that,” said Daen. He dove at Biltrin while drawing the dagger hidden in his boot. Hands grabbed at him, but he managed to jab his weapon through an opening in Biltrin’s armor near his shoulder blade. The guards dragged him back, but not before he had yanked his dagger savagely free, uprooting flesh and causing blood to flow.

King Reginald raised his voice. “What is the meaning of this?”

Daen was disarmed and forced to his knees.

“Two nights ago, we were in the Huntsman Woods,” he said, breathing heavily. “We were surrounded by wolves—hundreds of them. Biltrin charged into their midst and was lost to us. But later that night, when the wolves were about to feast on our hides, a brown wolf arrived out of nowhere to our rescue. He fought the leader of the pack and secured our safety. That wolf was him. It was Biltrin.”

“Your Majesty,” said Master Hedun, “must we continue to listen to this drivel? It is common knowledge that lycanthropes were wiped out long ago.”

“I would not have believed it myself, but the injuries the brown wolf sustained also appear on Biltrin,” Daen continued. “He received claw marks on his arms and face. You could see them for yourselves, if you care to.”

Biltrin was back on his feet, injured but not terribly so. The king squinted to make out the faint lines that remained of his wounds.

“Now look at me.” Daen too had cuts from the wolves. “These are the same type of injuries, made on the same day—only Biltrin’s have nearly healed. It will be another week before mine look like that.”

Master Hedun stepped forward. “Enough of this. We know nothing about these wounds. The king will not be swayed by charlatan’s tricks.”

“Is the cut I gave him a charlatan’s trick?” responded Daen. “Examine it for yourself, my lord.”

King Reginald stood, and the level of tension in the room rose with him. “Come.” He beckoned to Biltrin.

Biltrin reluctantly approached the king as ordered.

“Now let me have a look.”

Biltrin unlatched the armor plates and turned around so that the wound Daen had inflicted on him could be seen. His shoulder was red with blood.

“Marta, clean this up.” The king motioned for the redhead who had tended Daen. She approached with a wet rag, dabbing until only the gash remained.

The king stared at it, marveling. Even from Daen’s perspective, the wound looked as if it had been delivered hours ago, not minutes. King Reginald pressed the sides of the wound together, attempted unsuccessfully to make it bleed.

“Amazing,” he said.

Master Hedun stared blankly with unbelieving eyes, while Biltrin fidgeted, obviously uncomfortable at the attention.

“I’m not some animal. I’m a corporal in the Western Kingdoms army.”

“No, you are not an animal, nor are you human—but your actions, above all, betray you as honorable.” The king motioned to the guards. “Now let go of Lywrin’s son, or I’ll be hearing about it until my death.”

The room quieted in anticipation for what the king would say.

“I believe you could have been there,” he said to Biltrin. “In fact, if my instincts are on the mark, I think the whole crazy story is true. I never did trust that Rives.”

“Then you should confront him about it,” said Daen.

“I don’t think so. That man is the leader of PIKE. He holds sway over the minor lords, not to mention he’s my son’s most trusted confidant. Even as a king, I must approach this carefully.”

Daen had hoped to see some of that fire he admired in King Reginald as a youth. This was all for naught if the king did not take matters into his own hands. “Please, my lord,” he beseeched. “At least ask him about it. You owe it to your soldiers—”

A messenger, ushered into the room, interrupted him. “M’lord.”

He presented a parchment which was promptly read.

King Reginald muttered to himself then blew out some air noisily. “It seems,” he said, shouldering past the messenger toward the exit, “Rives has requested—more like demanded—an impromptu meeting.”

“Your Majesty,” called Master Hedun after him. “You mustn’t go unattended.”

“Come along, if you can keep up. It’s time I shake a merchant upside down and see if some coins fall out.”

That’s the king I remember. Daen followed along, apprehension causing his steps to feel unsteady. Things were about to go very well or very badly, very shortly.

 

 

book-cover-with-spineReturn next Sunday to read Chapter 50

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 48: Uncomfortable Questions http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-48-uncomfortable-questions/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-48-uncomfortable-questions/#respond Sat, 13 Jan 2018 13:01:57 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5266

Uncomfortable Questions

 

“This is Prince Peldrin’s tent, not King Reginald’s,” said the sentry.

Daen had assumed the giant tent in middle of the royal pavilion would be what they were looking for. “My apologies,” he said, starting away.

“Hey,” the guard called after him, “where’s your palrock?”

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

With that one question, their carefully laid plans unraveled.

Preoccupied by controlling the crowd Cahrin and Copius had drawn, the guards hadn’t noticed Daen remove one of the spikes holding the wall of the pavilion to the ground so he and Biltrin could slip inside. From there, it had been as simple as finding the king’s tent, which turned out to be not so simple. Worse, it seemed there was more to pavilion security than Daen had anticipated.

“Palrock?” he stalled. A quick survey of his surroundings confirmed other visitors of the pavilion wore a necklace with a smooth, black rock hanging from its end. It made sense to tag those who lawfully entered. As a sentinel, he should have noticed it right away, but he had purposely been avoiding others inside the pavilion for attention begets attention, the saying goes.

“Yes,” he continued, “that is one of the subjects we wish to speak with His Majesty about.” He could not believe that was the best lie he could come up with.

Apparently, the sentry couldn’t either. “Intruders!”

Daen and Biltrin broke into a run. The tent guards held their positions—the safety of the prince being paramount—as others heard the call and gave pursuit.

The king’s pavilion was massive, a royal camping ground. Foppish men and women of court struggled to keep clear of them, while servants carrying trays of food and entertainers practicing their trade cursed at the disruption.

Biltrin was panting as they came to a cluster of small tents bunched against each other, likely a camping area for the servants. Daen burst into a drooping tent big enough to sleep two. As he suspected, it was empty, the servants on duty at this hour. Biltrin crashed through the flap, burying his face in the floor, breath heaving in and out. Not long after, a dozen or so feet pounded by, along with the crunching of armor. Daen was about to peek outside when he heard cautious footsteps approaching.

Whoever it was entered a nearby tent, and then another. Daen pulled a dagger from his belt and waited behind the tent’s opening. As soon as the intruder poked his head inside, Daen pressed steel below his chin.

“Do not breathe a word,” he whispered.

The guard was dressed in a light chain shirt marked with a field marshal’s rank. His lips pulled back in a grin as he saw Biltrin on the ground. “Billy!” he bellowed in a coastal accent. “I can’t believe it’s you.”

Biltrin rose and motioned Daen’s knife away so he could greet the newcomer with a hearty embrace. “Finster, you rusty old battering ram. What are you doing nosing around?”

Daen sheathed his knife with a disgusted sigh, giving up his effort to hush the pair.

“Heard there were trespassers, maybe even assassins in the king’s pavilion. Couldn’t have that. Thought if I was gonna hide, these empty tents would be a mighty fine place.”

“Look at you. It’s been so long since you’ve used your blade you’ve started to think first.”

“That’s about to change.” Finster’s face creased in worry. “I was keeping the peace near Revlin when I heard the news. We’re headed out tomorrow, part of a larger force making its way to—”

“I hate to interrupt here,” Daen said, “but we have rather pressing business with the king. Perhaps as a friend of Biltrin’s, you can provide assistance.”

Finster looked pleased. “I assume this has something to do with half the guards in the pavilion chasing their own tails?”

“It might,” said Biltrin.

“You know I’m up for anything that puts those wet nurses in a tizzy.”

“So you can get us an audience with His Majesty?” asked Daen.

“No. No, I can’t. This isn’t my show. I am more or less a visitor. Like yourselves—only I was given lawful entry.” He chuckled lightly. “But wait here. There is something I might be able to do.”

With Finster gone, Daen reverted to speaking in whispers. “Do you trust him?”

“There’s not a lot a worn-out dog like me trusts anymore, but Finster, he’s one.”

They kept quiet after that. The next time someone approached, Daen recognized the step. A hand poked through the tent flap gripping two palrock necklaces. “Put these on and follow me.”

The sun had sunk during their wait, leaving their passage lit by clusters of torches mounted on poles. Backtracking, they ended up once more at the prince’s tent, though Finster led them around the back where four sentries stood at a different entrance. It occurred to Daen that he had not been wrong in his initial assessment that the king resided here. Only it wasn’t one massive tent, but two tents erected back-to-back with the king on one side and the prince on the other.

“These men have business with the king,” Finster said with authority.

One of the guards disappeared inside. When he came back out, he lifted the flap. “This way.”

“See you around, Billy, and good luck,” Finster said under his breath.

The small, circular room they entered reminded Daen of a castle antechamber, with two chairs on each side of a narrow table that held a stack of official-looking papers. An opening at the back led to a much larger and more lavish area.

“Take a seat,” said a stately voice from behind the opening, which they obeyed. Daen kept his gaze level, not wanting to appear to be snooping among the papers.

Finally a man wearing the blue robes of the Western Kingdoms entered, followed by two guards in red-and-white PIKE uniforms. He took a seat across from Daen, picked up his papers, and tapped them into a neat stack before placing them back down.

He cleared his throat. “I am Hedun Rue, advisor to King Reginald. You can refer to me as Master Hedun, if you wish.”

One of the PIKE merchant guards bent to whisper in Master Hedun’s ear. The advisor nodded, and the guard left the tent. Master Hedun produced a thin-lipped smile. “Tell me, who here requests an audience with His Majesty?”

“I, Daen Cernver and Corporal Biltrin…”

“Gronth,” Biltrin finished. Daen felt foolish not knowing the surname of this man he had shared battle with.

“So you are,” said Master Hedun. A servant girl placed a cup of amber liquid on the table in front of him. He took a deep sip, savoring the taste, before adding hastily. “May I offer either of you something?”

“No, thank you. Perhaps in less urgent times.”

The servant girl disappeared into the interior room, where Daen caught a glimpse of an older man in blue. He fought the desire to insist they see the king at once. No, he must not. He had been party to enough affairs of court to know these things could not be forced.

Master Hedun nodded. “Now what is it you came to see His Majesty about?”

“Master Hedun,” Daen began, glancing hesitantly at the remaining PIKE merchant guard who stood over the advisor’s shoulder. “We have traveled far and withstood much hardship to be here. Please understand I have the most utmost respect for the guidance you give to the king. But what we have to say is for His Majesty’s ears alone. This is a matter of the kingdom’s immediate welfare.”

“Young man, I advise in matters regarding the kingdom’s welfare. You will speak with me if you wish to be heard at all.”

It did not seem they had much choice. Daen looked sidelong at Biltrin. The veteran warrior shifted nervously in his chair. “Very well. The soldier I bring with me was part of the PIKE caravan that was ambushed and later found in Uthgar.”

A survivor?” Master Hedun looked as if would leap out of his chair. “Why hasn’t the king been informed of this earlier?”

“This man has been on the run ever since the ambush, his life threatened on numerous occasions. He has only now been able to make it this near the king.”

“I don’t understand,” said Master Hedun. “Why would anyone want this man dead?”

Daen leaned in close, hoping to keep his words from the ears of the PIKE guardsman. “Because he knows that Nastadra was not responsible for the attack on the caravan.”

Master Hedun’s shock gave way to a curled smile. “That’s quite a tale, I should say.” He leaned back in his chair, sipping lazily from his cup. “Are you sure I cannot offer you two some drink? Water or tea, perhaps?”

Why is he so nonchalant at the news? Daen’s temper began to stir. “We are not thirsty. I only wish the king to know that this war is for naught.”

“Yes, yes, I heard you the first time.”

Daen pushed his chair back, no longer keeping his voice between them. “I do not think you understand. There is a deception going on of the highest order. The king needs to be informed at once.”

The second guard returned with the guard they had spoken with at Prince Peldrin’s tent. “Are these the intruders?” asked Master Hedun.

“Yessir,” Prince Peldrin’s guard said.

Master Hedun placed his cup down. “Deception, you say? You mean the kind that may come from two assassins requesting an audience with the king?”

“Whatever your implication, you are mistaken.”

“With King Reginald out of the way, Nastadra could deal with the less experienced Prince Peldrin, isn’t that right?” pressed Master Hedun.

Daen stood and slammed his palms against the table, raising his voice so that whoever was beyond the opening could hear him. “Nastadra did not stage the ambush. There should be no war.

But he could see his words were falling on deaf ears. At Master Hedun’s signal, the guards secured them.

“Take them to the torturer,” Master Hedun ordered. “Tell him to use any means necessary to get them to talk—immediately.”

“Yessir.”

Hands pulled Daen roughly away. He twisted his head around. “You are making a grave mistake.”

Master Hedun was already lost in his pile of paperwork, but through the opening to the next room, he caught a glimpse of a figure in a sumptuous blue robe. Could it be the king?

As he was yanked outside, there was Elise sitting on a post, a cluster of torches shining brightly behind her. She was eating an apple a shade lighter than the green-stoned pendant around her neck. “You know you need to tell him,” she said.

Another vision to confirm he was raving mad.

“And lose you forever? Why should I do that?” He answered her out of habit.

She spoke with her mouth full. “Suit yourself, but you’re gonna look funny all stretched out.”

“Why are you even here?” He pulled against his captors, not wanting to lose sight of her.

“Are we really on that question again?” She slumped forward, resting her chin on one hand with a bored expression.

Daen tripped as he was yanked harshly in line, and when he looked again, she was gone. Maybe that was all he’d needed to get rid of her—a good rattling. But echoes of her words stuck with him, a reminder he had asked her the same question back at Lord Berrian’s castle. You should be asking why you’re here, she’d replied. Why was he here but to speak with His Majesty, to tell him the truth and maybe avert a war? Perhaps that’s exactly what she meant. Certainly whatever consequence he would have to face would be worth it.

“King Reginald!” he shouted.

Every step took them farther from the tent, his last chance slipping away. It was not time to be coy. He could no longer keep secrets. “King Reginald, you know my father. Please—you must speak with me!”

The tent had become distant in the background. “My true name is Daen Thornver!” he cried desperately, hoping someone, anyone might care enough to listen. His failure meant blood unnecessarily spilled, lives unnecessarily lost.

“King Reginald!” He said it at the top of his lungs. “My father is King Lywrin!”

Daen heard a derisive snort before something hit his head, turning hope into a swirling blackness.

 

Section Break

 

The last time Zeph had been at the PIKE warehouse, he’d only narrowly escaped. To be fair, he hadn’t known what he was getting into. Now that he had the lay of it, he was up for anything—which tonight comprised sneaking past the sentries and into the warehouse itself.

Scouting the area from across the river, Zeph felt a tinge of empathy for the sentries standing so still, doing absolutely nothing. Well, they were doing something—they were looking for people like him. But that was next to nothing as far as he was concerned.

Three nothing-doers stood equidistant to form a perimeter protecting the warehouse from any approach by land. Zeph had planned his incursion by way of the river. While still in the line of one guard’s sight, it offered his best hope to escape detection.

Most worrisome were the roamer sentries. He’d spent the last several mind-numbing hours memorizing their paths around the warehouse, a discipline he was certain Copius would have been better suited for. Conveniently, that would have left the job of wrestling the Otherworld creature to Zeph. He could imagine himself besting some hairy beast to the delight of the crowd. Unfortunately, that plan had been dashed when someone brought up Copius’s lack of climbing, subterfuge, and swimming skills.

When the sun finally disappeared behind the trees, Zeph eased into the bone-chilling river and began to wade across. Bored the sentries may be, he thought, but at least they weren’t freezing their behinds off.

By the time he’d made it to the edge of the dock, his legs felt like icy weights hanging from his body. He could see each sentry and roamer by the light of torch clusters placed around the warehouse. When he was certain he’d accounted for every last sentry, he turned his attention to the blotches of darkness between the torches. Those areas were where he would tread.

Only one sentry stood close enough to hear a man make shore, and he wouldn’t be moving away unless drawn. That meant it was time to do what Zeph hated most: wait—in the cold, wet water with the fish or whatever else was down there brushing at the ends of his numb feet.

He shivered from head to toe. He hoped Sel wasn’t right about Raven. In Zeph’s limited experience with the dark illusionist, words like “coarse,” “unfriendly,” and even “disagreeable” came to mind, but he still saw Raven as someone who did what he said he would.

“Who goes there?” the nearest guard called.

Zeph stood motionless, clenching his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering.

The guard moved away toward Raven’s distraction, giving Zeph the opportunity to make shore. Staying low to the ground, he slunk—as much as he could in his half-frozen state—to the darkened areas between the torch clusters and from there to the base of the warehouse. He rubbed the life back into his arms, then scratched his climbing claws against the dirt to dry them.

The sentry was still away when he started up the side of the warehouse. He climbed quietly at a steady pace. Speed would do him no good if he was discovered. About halfway up, he paused at the gentle clinking of armor. One of the roamers? He shouldn’t be coming this way already. Either Zeph had misread his route or the distraction had caused a schedule change.

He dug in with a climbing claw while pulling out a throwing dagger with his other hand. A well-placed blade would be his only option should he be spotted. Footsteps sounded beneath him; probing eyes scanned left to right. He held his breath, conscious of each droplet falling from his sopping clothes.

The sentry continued past, and Zeph allowed a silent sigh to escape his frigid lips. He was in the clear—or at least he thought he was until a climbing claw let out a high-pitched squeal.

He was slipping down the wall.

The roamer stopped and spun toward the sound. Zeph dropped his throwing dagger and latched onto the wall with his other climbing claw. He pressed his body against the warehouse wall, black clothes blending into the darkness. From the corner of his eye, he could discern the outline of the sentry facing him, watching, listening, waiting. After a hundred of Zeph’s heartbeats, the guard turned around and moved on.

The rest of the climb went without interruption—just your average ascent up a sheer surface while practically freezing to death. It reminded him of one of Darseer Rolt’s training exercises.

Zeph grabbed the windowsill and pulled his head above the opening. What he saw next nearly made him let go.

 

Section Break

 

Selgrin woke up with a bitter smell in his nostrils and mud on his face and hands. A crude bandage wrapped his shoulder where the knife had impaled him. With every movement, the wound burned like a branding.

He was sitting in a thick steel cage about half his height. A single torch gave a haunting view of Rives—Belatreeg—staring contemptuously through bars running in both directions. A few feet behind, Wertlin was seated on the surface of a desk, tossing a spear between his hands.

“We’ve been waiting for you to join us,” said Rives.

Selgrin eyed the cage, searching for an opening he might fit through.

“There is no escape,” said Rives, “not even for the Dersimeysous.”

Compelled to test those words, Selgrin imagined the smallest rat he had ever seen and willed himself into that form. But there were limits to Selgrin’s size, large and small, and he felt as if he were squeezing himself into a scabbard. When he was done, he could hardly use his tiny lungs for air.

He scurried to where he remembered a gap between the floor and its lowest bar and pressed his rat body to the floor, trying to squeeze underneath. Halfway through, something tickled at his tail, then grabbed and pulled it tight. He was jerked back into the cage, then to the side. His backside slammed into the cage once, twice, three times. Rives was trying to force him through another opening.

“Trapped like a rat.” Rives sniggered at his own joke. “You’re not going to fit no matter how hard I pull, though believe me when I say I intend to try.” The pain was excruciating. “I wonder what will happen to your dogar form after I’ve torn off your tail. Of course, you can end this game and I’ll spare you further discomfort.”

Succumbing to the inevitable, Selgrin reverted forms, leaving Rives holding thin air. No sooner was he back to normal when the butt of a spear rammed against his throat. A hatch in the cage had been opened, large enough to allow the spear to be thrust through.

“Attempt to change again and Wertlin here—who incidentally is a champion spearman—will impale you like a piece of meat,” Rives said.

Selgrin stared back defiantly.

“You must know you’re already as good as dead. But there are others to consider. Should you continue to be stubborn, I promise to have your brother, who presently sits in a Feralintero prison, executed. So think carefully before answering this next question. Yours is not the only life on the line.”

Rives’s deprecating smile made Selgrin’s blood boil.

“And be forewarned that a lie will fare no better than your previous failed attempt to deceive me. Now really, giving me that letter under the guise of Simerol was pathetic. I’m curious whose idiotic plan was it, hmm? No matter. Rest assured that living among the humans so long has taught me to spot treachery quite easily. I’m afraid you have to be much more devious to fool me—and frankly, Dersimeysous, I don’t think you have it in you.”

Rives glanced at Wertlin, signaling him to pull the spear back enough to allow Selgrin to speak. “It’s time for you to tell me what the real letter from Azren said.”

Selgrin kept his mouth clamped shut, refusing to play along.

“I have no more time to waste on you.” He pulled out writing material from the desk and began to write. “‘Dearest Father,’” he said aloud as he wrote. “‘It has come to my attention that keeping Delisrakin alive is a risk to our plan.’” He lifted his quill and made eye contact with Sel. “Once this request leaves my warehouse, there will be little hope for your brother. My father, the soon-to-be Chamber Head, will make certain of that.”

Allies with Azren, Velotanin the Chamber Head—could the plight of my people get any worse?

“I’ll make this easy on you,” said Rives. “If the letter you brought me said that Azren would not assist in the assassination of the king, I can only gather that the original conveyed the opposite. Nod once if this is true.”

Sel nodded hesitantly.

“Good. Then bulstan have been sent to aid me. When will they arrive?”

After a long pause, Sel mumbled, “They are here already.”

Rives rubbed his hands together greedily. “I see even the Dersimeysous knows when it’s time to yield. One last answer. Tell me, where do the bulstan wait for me?”

Selgrin cast his eyes downward, shaking his head.

With another signal, Wertlin thrust the wood butt into his neck.

“I don’t play games!” shrieked Rives. He continued in a perfectly mild voice. “You should know that about me, even from our childhood.”

The pressure of the spear made it hard to breathe, but it was not his welfare that concerned him. “At the crossroads,” he said hoarsely. The spear let up. “Where the Old Road meets with the Arn.”

“And he breaks like a brittle leaf of autumn,” Rives leaned forward to finish scribbling his note and then pocketed it. “Now I must leave to dispose of a king. Wertlin, kill the Dersimeysous and dump him in the river.”

“Please…” Selgrin could not fathom any harm coming to Delis. “Don’t send that to your father.”

“Oh, this?” He patted his pocket with a wicked smile. “This was never meant for my father. It is addressed to the king—an invitation to his murder.”

Selgrin slumped.

“Don’t look so glum,” called Rives on his way out. “Your confession may be the key to returning our people to glory, like it was before the War of Elder Kind, before the humans came, when there were no enemies, only trading partners. Turns out you, Dersimeysous, might be the savior of the dogar after all.”

Selgrin swallowed hard. All he’d ever wanted was to return his people to prominence—but not this way, at the expense of so many lives. And certainly not with Azren.

Wertlin pulled the butt of the spear from the cage, spun the weapon around and thrust it back inside.

The move was so fluid it caught Selgrin off guard, missing his heart by a single finger width. He cried out in agony.

Twisting the spear as he yanked it free, Wertlin said, “Be still and I will end this.”

Then he thrust at Selgrin again.

 

 

book-cover-with-spineReturn next Sunday to read Chapter 49

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 47: Misdirection http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-47-misdirection/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-47-misdirection/#respond Sun, 07 Jan 2018 22:07:04 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5283

Misdirection

 

“Too many moving parts,” Sel grumbled under his breath as he edged his horse along the road.

At least, that’s what his father would have said. As a tinkerer of sorts, he believed the simpler, the better. Selgrin couldn’t agree more. Take this plan of Daen’s. As a whole it had merit, but on closer inspection it was a disaster waiting to happen. One misstep or unanticipated event and they all could end up dead.

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The worst of it was relying on Raven. The man would turn against them in an instant if it got him one drop closer to accomplishing his personal agenda.

Sel brushed back the sides of his charcoal cloak and tried to feel like a kobold. He had met one long ago, when the creature was trying to recruit the dogar to his master’s cause. Unfortunately, Sel never saw the kobold’s face, so replicating its clothes and stature were about the best he could do. And while the accompanying voice wouldn’t be an exact match, Selgrin was not inept. He certainly could mimic the typical kobold’s dry, squeaky tone, and that should be enough for his purposes. The real trick was not to be too obvious about anything.

Making sure his cowl was pulled low over his face, Selgrin approached the PIKE sentry. It was getting late in the day, and the sentry slouched as if he’d been at his post since dawn. He took a deep, calming breath before he began.

“My name is Simerol,” he said in a raspy screech. “I’m here to see Rives.”

“Your weapons,” the sentry requested.

Sel pressed his hands to his belt protectively.

The guard persisted. “Nobody sees Master Rives without relinquishing their weapons.”

Selgrin reluctantly gave up his short sword and dagger. Already he was having a bad feeling about this.

The PIKE sentry signaled to a comrade and sent him to give word to Rives. When he returned, it was with two men on horseback. One was Rives. The other appeared to be human, tall and thin with wavy hair and sunken eyes. Selgrin would have bet his good hand he was another dogar.

“Where’s Gyste?” asked Rives.

A shiver ran down Sel’s spine. No turning back now. “Are you sure you wish to discuss that here?”

Rives sneered. “Let’s walk.” He and his comrade dismounted, leading the way down the main path. Once past the ridge, they headed toward the wooded area, where they would have privacy.

“Now, answer my question,” ordered Rives.

“Gyste had other more important business to attend to. He instructed me to deliver this. It came from Azren himself.” Selgrin pulled a rock from his pocket with a parchment wrapped around it.

Rives greedily peeled the message free and read it. Disappointment crept onto his face.

“What does it say?” asked his companion.

“Azren thinks it is not the time to dispose of the king.” Rives crumpled the parchment before turning angrily on Sel. “Does he not realize that this is our best chance?”

“Would you like me to convey that to him, Belatreeg?”

His eyes flashed. “Belatreeg is the name of a sniveling child. I am Rives now, the head of the most powerful merchant consortium on Draza. My associate here is Wertlin. And spare me your snide questions. You kobolds are all the same. I do not wish to relay anything to Azren. If he won’t help me, I will take matters into my own hands.”

“And do what exactly?”

A dangerous look crossed Rives’s face. “Where did you say you met up with Gyste?”

“Just outside of No Man’s Land.”

“And how many bulstan did he have with him at the time?”

“Four,” Sel replied.

“Do you know what I like most about bulstan, Simerol?”

Selgrin stayed quiet, assuming the question was meant to be rhetorical, and thankfully, Rives continued.

“They obey without question. Why do they do that, Simerol?” His tone was mocking, but it was clear this time he expected an answer.

Selgrin’s sole experience with the white warriors was at the farmhouse. He had no knowledge of their disposition. “They fear Azren, of course.”

“Really? That’s interesting. I know you and your kind incessantly grovel at Azren’s feet out of fear, but the bulstan… I always assumed obedience was bred into them.”

Selgrin gave a short laugh, only it was not in character. Instead of coming out dry and wheezing, it was more like a hacking cough.

Rives twitched in response. “Let me see your face, Simerol.”

And there it was. He would have to choose his next words carefully. “Don’t be foolish. It would be dangerous to reveal myself, even here.”

“I will take my chances. Just a peek. The only other kobold I have seen up close is Gyste.” Rives advanced so that the top of his shoulders brushed up against Sel’s angled crown. “Are you all so ugly?”

“Quite.”

Before anything more could be said, Rives yanked back Sel’s hood, revealing the face of the dogar underneath.

The surprise in Rives’s eyes was priceless—as was his keeling over and gulping for air in response to Selgrin’s sucker punch to the gut. Another time, Sel might have basked in the moment. Not today.

His first few steps felt good. He had a head start, and the edge of the forest was not far off. But his short kobold legs could not pump fast enough, and Wertlin ran him down from behind. He slammed into dirt and rocks. Harsh hands grabbed his shoulder.

He twisted to face his adversary. Wertlin stared down at him with a serious expression backed by dark, unemotional eyes. Calmly, he pressed Selgrin down as if he were holding a bag of apples underwater.

The diminutive kobold body was no good in a wrestling match, so Selgrin decided upon another. His skin sprouted gray fur, nails became claws, and his nose and mouth turned into the snout of a wolf. At least that night in the woods had served a purpose: a lifetime’s worth of wolves at his disposal.

Selgrin attacked, blindly raking his adversary with newly formed claws, closing his mouth around what felt like an arm. The grasp on him fell away. Wertlin called out in agony.

When Selgrin’s vision cleared, he saw he wasn’t the only one changing his form. He moved to sink teeth into his enemy’s midsection, but it felt like he was trying to crumple a copper bowl. The man before him was no longer tall and gangly but squat with a warrior’s frame wearing steel-plated armor. Only the most expensive yiltoline cloth could change its composition to maintain rigidity under duress. Though it lacked the true strength of steel, it provided enough protection for Wertlin to mount an attack of his own.

Using his weight advantage, Wertlin held Selgrin down and shoved his dagger at him. Selgrin couldn’t break free. He squirmed. The blade pierced his shoulder. He yelped in pain. Spun onto his side, he was pinned down with a knee. There would be no wriggling away. Wertlin pulled the dagger from Sel’s furry frame and raised it high.

Selgrin snapped his jaws and flailed his claws, anything that would save him.

Too many moving parts. The thought stuck in his head. Everything had to be just right, and Selgrin was afraid he had taken his role too far.

The blade was thrust downward.

“Stop,” a voice gasped from behind Wertlin. “I need him…alive.”

 

Section Break

 

“Are you ready?” Cahrin asked Copius. She wasn’t even sure if she was ready. Since losing the guidance of her master, her summonings had not all gone as planned. Then again, this was only a tremal. What could go wrong with summoning a tremal?

The sun was just beginning to set over the Performer’s Area, where a small crowd was watching a juggler throw balls into the air, then add an axe and a canteen into the mix. Behind him, a man draped in emerald satin swallowed a curved sword.

Cahrin used a boot to mark off an area close to the royal pavilion and court of His Majesty King Reginald. The pavilion spanned the length of eight merchant aisles, looking very much like a castle in tent form. Guards were stationed every twenty paces except at the main entrance, where a long row of them stood almost shoulder to shoulder.

It’s going to take quite a distraction to get Daen and Biltrin in there.

“I asked if you’re ready,” she repeated more curtly than she intended.

Copius was staring at a water elementalist snaking a bubbling globe through the air and then unraveling it until it resembled a flowing stream. “Yeah, um…sure.”

“You don’t look it.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, abashed. “How should I look?”

“You know—tough, like a monk of the Auburn Order.” This would not work if Copius stood there petting the tremal. There needed to be danger and the hint of bloodshed.

“I am a monk of the Auburn Order.” He straightened his back and smoothed the formal robes he had put on for this occasion. “I-I just don’t know about this.”

“What are you worried about?”

“Say there’s a monk of The One in the crowd. If word gets out I was doing this, I’ll never get another chance at Ebony.”

Another chance?” She raised an eyebrow. “I thought no monk would sponsor you.”

“I-I-I couldn’t get one…the s-second time.” He looked miserable. “I failed the Ebony test so completely I was d-demoted to Azure and my sponsor sanctioned.”

Poor Copius. No wonder he was out of sorts. The Council’s accusations were not doing him any favors with his order.

“It is only recently I even made it back to Auburn. N-N-Not that it matters much now.”

“I should say not,” she said. “Imagine losing your chance at Ebony but averting a war.”

“When you say it that way…”

“Now try puffing out your chest a little.”

He sucked in his stomach and pulled back his shoulders.

“And do you have to wear these?” She pulled off his wire-rimmed spectacles.

“Only if I need to see.”

She didn’t expect he would in order to spot the tremal coming at him. I don’t even know how you keep them from falling off your face.”

He shrugged helplessly.

“Now try scowling.” She eyed his attempt critically. “Really Copius, I’ve seen wolf cubs fiercer.”

“I’m—I’m trying.” Copius returned glumly.

“Oh, Cope.” He’s so sensitive. “I’m just saying you look more like a nice guy than a tough guy. You’re still a talented warrior. In fact, you would be my first choice as an ally in battle.”

“You mean that?”

“Of course I do.” She ran a hand through her hair and gave Copius a final once-over. “It’s just you worry so much about what others think, you don’t see what’s plainly in front of you.”

“It’s kind of hard without my glasses.”

“Know this, Copius Crux: you were born to be an Ebony. I’ve known it since we first met, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of your order does as well.”

Copius appeared about to respond when he was accosted by Norweegee. The xaffel had crept out of hiding and onto the monk’s shoulder to deliver a pointy talon poke.

“Ouch! Stop that.” Copius’s lip curled as he swatted at the creature.

“That’s much better,” Cahrin said. “Now just try to keep that look.”

Corralling the xaffel back into her pocket, she began her pitch. “Get ready to be amazed and entertained like never before,” she called. Men began stopping in the street to stare and listen. “You are about to witness something that has only once before been attempted, something so dangerous it’s outlawed in the northern lands.”

Cahrin raised her voice a decibel. “Behold a battle between a man and the most deadly of beasts. The man is a monk of The One, a survivor of more than a hundred battles. He has traveled the length of Draza, seeking out the most vile and savage of creatures and killing them with his bare hands.”

“Cahrin, I don’t believe that’s true,” whispered Copius.

She replied under her breath, “Stop listening and start flexing your muscles or something.”

“The beast,” she continued, “is none other than the ferocious owlbear The two will fight each other in mortal combat until only one is left standing!”

By this time, a reasonable crowd was forming. While not yet the diversion she was hoping for, it was a start.

“Where’s the owlbear?” called one of the spectators.

“I shall use magic to call it forth from my homeland in the north. It takes great effort to transport such a creature to this modest piece of dirt we have marked off for battle, so please be patient while you listen to the boasting words of our challenger.”

Cahrin pushed Copius forward toward the center of the spectators as she began her magic. In truth, she was not summoning a creature from the north. Like all summoners, she could only bring a creature from Otherworld—in this case, a tremal. Though she called it an owlbear thinking that sounded much more beastly, and its appearance reminded her of a cross between the two animals.

She was halfway through the signs when she heard a boo escape from the crowd. A partially eaten piece of fruit shot past her. In the back of her mind, she could hear Copius reciting the Fifty-Six Truths of The One.

Is that the best he can come up with? She couldn’t worry about that now. Concentration was the hallmark of a good summoning.

When the tremal first appeared, ghostlike about six feet from Copius, the monk nearly leapt out of his sandals. This was greeted by hoots of laughter from the spectators. Awe and fear quickly followed as the creature became flesh and blood before them. It walked on two legs, towering above the crowd. Its brown fur was long and coarse, and its girth made Copius appear gaunt by comparison. Most awful to those seeing it for the first time was its face. Its eyes and ears resembled those of a bear, but instead of a snout there was a giant, curved beak.

If any of the spectators had known the creature’s true disposition, they would probably have come over to pat her on the stomach—yes, she sensed the tremal was definitely a female. Cahrin wrapped her will tenderly around the gentle giant’s spirit and asked her to kindly play-wrestle with her friend in the reddish-brown robes.

She did not get the calm acquiescence she expected. The tremal snapped back with a defiant will of her own while frantically surveying her new surroundings.

Cahrin had never known a tremal to be aggressive before. Her books had always described them as docile with strong maternal tendencies. Of course. The desperate searching, the unprovoked hostility—the creature had been taken away from her children.

This tragedy was too late to be reversed, the stakes too high. If she were to dismiss the tremal and go through the summoning again, she’d lose half her crowd—and there was no telling if a different one or the same one would appear.

She squeezed the tremal’s spirit to get her attention. I need you to wrestle nicely with the creature next to you, she told it soothingly. Soon it will be over. Soon you will be back with your young ones.

The tremal listened this time, fixing her attention on Copius as she shuffled forward amidst the oohs and ahhs of the crowd. Copius bent his head and squinted. Oh my, maybe I shouldn’t have taken his glasses.

The two faced off hardly a length from each other, neither committing. Copius stared, neck craned forward, a look of constipation on his face. The tremal pointed her beak at him. After a few impatient shouts from the onlookers, Copius ran awkwardly forward and grabbed the tremal around the midsection. His hands could not quite touch each other. Still, his legs churned as he pressed his shoulder into the wall of fur.

The results was something between comedic and painful to watch. The tremal stood tall, scanning the area as if she did not register Copius had latched onto her. Some laughs from the spectators turned to jeers after a lengthy period where Copius made grunting sounds as he strained to move the tremal an inch.

Do something, she instructed the tremal. Much more of this and they’d have no spectators at all.

Thick arms encircled Copius and lifted him off the ground. Grunts turned to an inward wheeze. The tremal squeezed until his back arched at an irregular angle. Those watching gasped. Cahrin was afraid something would snap. What a horrid mistake this is turning out to be.

Cahrin tightened her will around the spirit of the tremal in much the same way Copius was being crushed. Stop. Stop. Stop! she ordered, applying all the pressure she could muster.

Copius was grimacing in pain, his torso appeared ready to crumple. Finally the tremal relented and dropped him to the ground. The crowd booed, to Cahrin’s horror; they’d been hoping to see her friend cave inward like the meat pies he was so fond of.

The tremal turned and fixed her with a baleful stare, silently screaming for her children. Cahrin realized this could not continue. The normally amiable creature had the fortitude of an ox, and she would not be easily deterred. Much more of this and Copius would end up severely injured or worse.

“Listen up, Northerner,” came a voice from behind Cahrin.

“Yes,” she acknowledged, her eyes still focused on the contest. The tremal faced Copius, who was stumbling to his feet. A few cheers erupted from the spectators as the next round of combat appeared imminent.

“This fight needs to end.”

She found one of the guards from the king’s pavilion giving her a menacing stare. She smiled pleasantly back. “For what reason?”

“It’s causing too much of a ruckus.” He thumped his spear against the ground for emphasis.

The guard was correct. The crowd was perfectly out of hand. The sea of onlookers reached the wall of the king’s pavilion, jostling one another in a manner more like a mob than spectators. Even in her area, sweaty bodies were pressing toward her, making it uncomfortable.

“Yes, I’ll certainly try,” she said. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the tremal charging Copius.

“If you don’t stop it soon, I’ll do it for you.”

She couldn’t imagine a greater spectacle than that, and she pursed her lips in delight. “Please do.”

Vying for a better view, the crowd turned to forceful pushing for space, a ripple effect that sent someone’s shoulder crashing into Cahrin. She stumbled into someone else who shoved her back the other direction, over a foot and onto the ground.

Boots were all around her, kicking her, stomping on her. She tried to rise but was trampled under by the crowd. Her concentration broke, releasing the tremal and allowing it the freedom to act without retribution.

 

 

book-cover-with-spineReturn next Sunday to read Chapter 48

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 46: A Precarious Plan http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-46-a-precarious-plan/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-46-a-precarious-plan/#respond Sat, 30 Dec 2017 12:01:26 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5157

A Precarious Plan

 

“Look who I brought,” Zeph announced, arriving on horseback with a darkly cloaked figure Cahrin recognized at once. “I sort of saved his life—and he, mine.”

Selgrin groaned.

“Raven!” Copius stood up to give greeting. “It’s g-good to have you back.”

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

Despite what the others thought, Cahrin had rather been hoping to see the illusionist again. She had never met a ghasiv so unflinching in his resolve.

Raven returned no pleasantries. Scanning those present, he hesitated at Biltrin. “Can he be trusted?”

Zeph leapt off and gave Biltrin a shake. “Old Biltrin here has the soldier’s code. You can trust him.”

That seemed good enough for Raven. “There is much I’ve learned since we last parted.”

As usual, he spoke without passion, but Cahrin sensed the burning desire behind his words. Raven stopped short of asking for help, but it was clear that was why he was here.

“Perhaps a trading of stories is in order,” she said.

They created a tight circle and kept their voices low while discussing what had happened since they separated. Most intriguing to Cahrin was Raven’s account of the conversation between the dogar Belatreeg and the servant of Azren.

Zeph laid his head back against interlocked fingers. “A spy in the midst of the Western Kingdoms, who would have thought.”

“Not only a spy. He’s posing as Rives, the head of PIKE,” said Raven.

The ear-carver is a dogar. Things started to fall into place for Cahrin.

“Figures,” said Selgrin. “He’s been using PIKE to help the Afflicted One all along, probably keeping him plenty flush with coin.”

Daen shifted uneasily. “The simple truth that Rives serves Azren gives credence to Biltrin’s story.”

“It certainly gives Rives a motive,” said Cahrin.

“Sure does,” agreed Zeph. “Once the Western Kingdoms and Nastadra are done beating each other to a pulp, Azren will sweep in with his armies and take over everything.”

Not unlike Clan of the Fox. Cahrin knew their strategy well. They would wait until their scouts found bodies from a recent confrontation before raiding a weakened clan.

“Then it is a good thing we are here,” said Daen. “If Biltrin tells King Reginald of Nastadra’s innocence, perhaps war can be averted.”

It was wishful thinking, in Cahrin’s opinion. “I don’t know how we’re going to convince the king to believe Biltrin’s story over the leader of the most powerful merchant consortium on Draza.”

“What reason would Biltrin have to lie?” asked Copius.

“That’s not how the king will look at it, Cope,” said Selgrin.

Zeph grinned. “What we need is the head of PIKE with his head on a spike.”

“Or Rives agreeing with Biltrin,” said Daen, nodding slowly to himself.

Now what does he have in mind? Cahrin raised an eyebrow.

Daen leaned forward and outlined the general idea. After hushed but heated debate, they hammered out the details, and all that was left was the execution.

“I see a giant hole in your plan,” Sel began, not a moment after it was finalized. “Actually, several holes, not the least of which is relying on him.” He shot a look in Raven’s direction. “It all falls apart if he doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain. And I have been betrayed by him once already.”

“I make no apologies,” Raven said. “My actions are borne out of necessity.”

“The necessity of saving your own skin.”

“I do what the weak are too fragile to accomplish and the ignorant too afraid to attempt. Not all my decisions are easy.”

For the first time that she could remember, Cahrin heard a slight semblance of emotion in his tone.

“I can’t be the only one here who doesn’t trust him.” Selgrin searched the faces of the others.

“Sel,” Cahrin spoke as delicately as she knew how. “We won’t succeed without him. Or without you, for that matter. We’re either in this together, or we stop now.”

“The One shall carry us through. I know it.” Copius dipped his head, placing a palm over the triumvirate of circles that made up his robe clasp.

Sel scowled. “Let’s pretend I’m willing to take my chances with him. How are Daen and a banged-up man-at-arms going to persuade the ruler of the Western Kingdoms to listen to them?”

“I understand the ways of royal courts,” said Daen. “I will secure an audience with King Reginald, and Biltrin will be convincing. Trust me.”

“That’s right, son of a court chamberlain,” grumbled Selgrin. “Not sure how that’s gonna help one iota here.”

“We all have our tasks.”

“Phooey, I say.” But Selgrin gave no further objection.

“So does that mean we’re set?” Zeph asked after a few moments of silence.

Cahrin had her own reservations: Once their plan was underway, there would be no opportunity to communicate with each other. Meaning if any of them failed, the rest would surely follow. But she kept quiet; this was as good a plan as any.

“There is something else,” Raven said. “The dogar spoke as if I was one of the Gems of Tazanjia. I believe we all are.”

Zeph sat upright. “We’re the gems? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“It’s not uncommon in war to use another name as a placeholder to hide a target’s identity.”

“He has a point,” said Daen. “It is basic military procedure in case messages are intercepted or conversations overheard. Only the inner circle or a crucial few would be privy to the true who or what.”

“I got it. Well, sort of. I think.” Zeph squished his lips to one side in an overly contemplative expression—not a good look for him. “So we’re the gems from Azren’s standpoint, but not the gems as far as the prophecy goes.”

“I would not be so quick to that conclusion,” Daen said. “The words of seers are mysterious by nature, even to those who say them.”

Cahrin wrapped her arms around herself against the cold and rocked gently, pondering the implication. Her people believed magic, including the foretelling of the future, to be ghasiv foolishness. And yet here she was, summoning creatures from Otherworld and traveling with earth elementalists and illusionists. But still. “What exactly are you saying, that we are the subjects of a prediction made forty years ago, simply because Azren referred to us as the gems?”

“Maybe Azren had no choice in the matter,” said Daen. “Perhaps he was fulfilling his role when he named us after them.”

“All this talk of destiny—you’re beginning to sound like Zeph.”

“Who is to say that Kalendistrafous was referring to the Great War when speaking of the gems and not this second war with Azren?” Daen’s voice was agitated. He dove into his backpack, pulling out the minstrel’s tale on the prophecy to show them. “Look here: ‘With the diamond’s beauty comes a chill that’s icy cold, but the powers held within will surely warm the soul.’ Could that not be referring to you, Cahrin?”

“Certainly not—you must be mad,” she replied. “The seer’s words are just that: words.”

If Daen was correct, it would mean the choices she had made were not choices at all. Her father’s death, her abandonment of her spirit mate—all of it—had happened because of some prophecy. She refused to believe it.

Zeph cleared his throat noisily before Daen could reply. “I hate to say it, but even a Northerner can be right some of the time. I mean, it’s not that you’re as crazy as she says, it’s just that seers don’t predict things that far in advance. A week or a month maybe, but not decades. Besides, we don’t know the whole of it, only bits and pieces spun by a bard.”

“Which is why we would do well to seek greater insight on the matter. Perhaps once we are done here, we should pay a visit to the capital of the Western Kingdoms. Dalfeyn is known to have the greatest library on Draza.”

“Or,” said Selgrin, “you could go ask Kalendistrafous about it.”

“That old coot’s still alive?” asked Zeph.

“As far as I heard. He is half dogar, you know.” Upon seeing all the slack jaws, he continued. “What? You think a human would name her son Kalendistrafous?” There was little arguing with that logic.

Copius raised a hand like a schoolboy seeking permission to speak. When all eyes turned to him, he began, “I j-just don’t understand why Azren would want us all dead.”

Sel shrugged. “Don’t know about the rest of you, but even before the Great War, I rallied dogar against him.”

“Perhaps a friend of an enemy is also an enemy,” said Cahrin. “Azren may have designs on all those you care for.”

“The Afflicted One has other reasons for wanting my demise,” said Raven.

“Don’t we all,” Selgrin said. “Anyway, I have plenty of friends who haven’t been targeted.”

“Are you sure you don’t mean acquaintances?” asked Zeph.

Selgrin shot him an angry look in return. “I have other friends.”

“Sure, if you say so, Sel,” said Zeph. “If that’s not it, could it be chance? We’re talking about Azren here. He probably tries to kill a whole bunch of people.”

“Yes, Zeph, that makes perfect sense,” answered Cahrin. “In fact, why does Azren even need an army if he could just pay assassins to kill all who oppose him?”

“Sure would make things a lot easier for him.”

Cahrin clenched her fist in frustration. Sometimes she wished she carried around a stick to crack Zeph across the head when he said something stupid.

“There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it,” said Selgrin. “A dogar, a monk of The One, a Carc assassin, a Northerner, and a sentinel from the Isle of Nalesc… I can’t figure it.”

“I think I can.” Daen fingered his chin intently. “Two years ago, we were brought before the Council of the Alliance and put on a mission of great intrigue—a mission that went terribly wrong.”

“C’mon, Daen,” said Zeph, “that had nothing to do with Azren. It may have seemed like a big deal at the time, but even you have to admit what we found never amounted to anything. Look, we all know how much you cared for Elise. It’s only natural you’d want her death to mean something—”

Daen punched the ground. “It did mean something!” His voice drew unwanted attention from nearby campsites, and he continued in a softer tone. “All of you know the truth of it, deep down. How can finding undead in the middle of Draza not be significant? The Council practically retched when they heard our account. The only way they knew how to deal with it was to ignore it. If any of you question my words, answer me this: When is the last time you were assigned to a mission with one another?”

“Not since then, but—”

Daen cut Zeph off. “Exactly, not a single instance. Too much of a coincidence, I say.”

“Maybe,” said Zeph, “I still think we should explore the theory that Azren is targeting friends of Sel. Truth be told, we have no proof that Sel has any friends besides us, and I’m thinking while he might not want to admit it, he holds a special place for dark and brooding.” He gave Raven a knowing glance.

“That’s quite enough, Zeph,” said Cahrin, before Sel’s face became any redder with rage. “I’m sure Selgrin has many friends.”

“Just saying, a few names—”

She dug her fingernails into his arm.

“Ouch! Or maybe Rives knows why Azren wants us dead,” Zeph finished.

It seems with enough pain, even Zeph could have an intelligent thought. “Good point.” She nodded appreciatively. “And if everything goes according to plan, he should have plenty of incentive to tell us.”

The others agreed, save Daen, who turned away looking frustrated he could not continue to vent his anger.

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 47: Misdirection

 

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 45: Schie Kalro http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-45-schie-kalro/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-45-schie-kalro/#respond Sat, 23 Dec 2017 12:01:19 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5200

Schie Kalro

 

It took three more days to climb the mountainside where the Rulakon made their home, days that would have been better spent marching the clans toward Asormo. Azren would not welcome the delay, though Pa’hu could hardly care. He’d come to dislike Azren and his minions almost as much as the ghasiv.

His appointed emissary to the Northerners, Kreeb, was crafty like a fox. His shrewd moves had so far worked to Pa’hu’s advantage, but he knew this would not always be the case. The feelings of Azren and his kind were ephemeral. Friend could turn to foe as quickly as an ice storm came and went, and favor would go to those most accommodating to Azren’s demands.

For now, an alliance was necessary, but Pa’hu envisioned a time when Azren would be the target of his people’s aggression. And for such a bold move, he would need the might of all five clans.

So here he was with a dozen of his best men on a snow-covered plateau near the suemil, the highest point on the tallest mountain. He waited for the rocca between himself and Vergud, hoping that the chieftain of the Rulakon would not simply bring his warriors to slay them all.

“Schie Bura!” called Cawa. “Tril has spotted them.” The snowy white owl sat on Cawa’s shoulder, resting its wings after hours of vigilance.

Pa’hu’s men pulled bows from their shoulders.

“Lay your weapons down,” commanded Pa’hu. The Capcecka warriors looked at him, confused. It was an act of surrender. “Do as I say. We are not here to make war.” They put down their bows, knives, and swords with obvious discomfort. Pa’hu laid his own weapons on the snow before him.

He knew Vergud would bring a large contingent of clansmen, enough to slaughter the Capcecka. But if he were to attack an unarmed group of Northerners, he would lose the respect of his clan. No, there would be a rocca this day, with the winner gaining command of all five clans and becoming Schie Kalro, a title not held for over two hundred years.

It took some time for Pa’hu’s eyesight to catch up with that of the snowy white owl. Vergud was first to appear above the rise. He wore a fur vest over a bare torso, despite the freezing cold, and stood a full clean-shaven head taller than any man present. Strapped to his back was a great axe with crescent-shaped blades facing away from each other, a weapon so massive it was hard to imagine him lifting it above his head, much less wielding it with speed and accuracy.

Vergud strutted across the plateau ahead of row upon row of his men—at least five Rulakon warriors for each Capkecka. He stopped directly in front of Pa’hu and laughed heartily before addressing him. “I did not realize you would submit so soon.”

“We leave our weapons at our feet to show we are here only for the rocca.”

“As we both are,” responded Vergud good-naturedly, but his wily eyes conveyed a cunning underneath. “I see you have made preparations.” He nodded toward a rectangle outlined in the snow with a torch at each corner. The rules were simple: a combatant would lose if he called for surrender, left the rectangle, or died. Death was the most prevalent outcome.

“‘Time, like food, should not go wasted,’” quoted Pa’hu from an ancient saying.

“Then we shall begin,” said Vergud. “As the chieftain of the Rulakon, I call forth a champion to fight in my place.” He put a meaty hand on the shoulders of a skinny young warrior whose head did not quite make it up to Vergud’s biceps. “This is my champion.”

What is this game he plays? Pa’hu hid his shock beneath a placid nod. Why would Vergud appoint a champion when his own skills in battle were said to be without peer? More befuddling was his choice of champions. Pa’hu would slice the youth to pieces within seconds. Did Vergud believe him too righteous for the task? This was for the leadership of all five clans. If the death of this young clansman was required, then so be it.

“I will champion myself,” he said.

The Rulakon champion stepped forward and sneered at Pa’hu before making a guttural, beastlike sound. The men behind him shuffled to the side to create a path in the snow, and an uoko emerged.

Several feet taller than Pa’hu and twice as wide, it had four stubby fingers that ended in two-inch claws used to rend flesh from bone. No mouth, nose, or ears could be seen among the bush of white hair that covered its face and body. Large, round eyes were inset in its head like black rocks pressed into the face of a snowman—an enormous, ferocious snowman.

The uoko stopped just short of the young warrior, and it became clear: this youth Pa’hu was about to fight was the beliei of the Rulakon, the Clan of the Uoko. As Tril served Cawa, the uoko served him. More than that, a beliei’s animal servant, known as a nihini, was considered one with its human counterpart, and thus the uoko would be allowed to fight inside the rectangle.

Pa’hu did not flinch. His men were watching. If he was mauled by this creature, so be it. He would not tremble in fear. He bent down and picked up his broadsword, leaving his hunting knife in the snow. Against the uoko’s thick fur and hardened skin, it would be near useless.

He stepped into the rectangle along with his opponent, who stood at the farthest edge. In response to a few spoken words, the uoko took up a defensive position a dozen feet in front of his charge. Men from both clans crowded around for a better view.

“Saruun!” yelled Vergud, and the battle began.

Pa’hu expected the uoko to come at him straight away. While its hulking frame looked clumsy, their kind were surprisingly swift over short distances. He had once seen an uoko chase down a mountain lion. This one did not seem so inclined. Maybe domesticated as it was, it had taken on some human traits—in which case it was for Pa’hu to be the aggressor.

Bending his knees experimentally, Pa’hu bounced up and down twice as he forced a deep breath through clenched teeth. He had never known another to purposely rush an uoko. Best not to think twice about it.

With a war cry on his lips, he sprinted toward his opponent. The scene blurred. A shaggy arm ripped the air; Pa’hu ducked below it, stepped forward, and dragged his broadsword across the uoko’s chest. Skin split. Black blood bubbled to the surface.

He twisted, changing directions. A slice left to right should have severed the uoko’s neck. A raised elbow blocked. The sword lodged against bone as wide as a wolf’s jaw.

A paw came swiping in. Pa’hu took the full force of the attack against his ribs and chest. He stumbled backward, losing his sword but keeping his feet. The uoko made only a cursory swat as he retreated.

Surely now, aggression would serve the creature well, thought Pa’hu. It might have finished him if it had not stepped back to its original position, as if it were tethered to the beliei. Pa’hu took measure of the Rulakon with the power to control this savage beast. The young man stood awkwardly, his hunting knife tied to his belt in a spot that was not optimal for drawing quickly. Pa’hu doubted the beliei had killed either human or animal with his own two hands.

Could that explain the uoko’s fighting style? Perhaps the nihini served as more than a servant to its handler. It was his protector. Keeping its beliei alive was paramount to the creature, more so than tearing Pa’hu apart.

One of his men tossed him a fresh broadsword. He caught it midflight, then bent down to pick up a handful of snow to press against his injured torso. While the wound was not severe enough to hinder him this early in the battle, its longer consequences would not be so readily dismissed. Already blood was seeping through the snow pack, draining Pa’hu’s strength one droplet at a time. He would have to stay on the offensive, keeping in mind there was a line between aggression and foolhardiness that only the dead fearlessly crossed.

He darted in, lashing out then retreating before a counterstrike could be mounted. He jabbed at the uoko’s burly chest, skipped backward out of range then thrust at its shoulder before dancing away unharmed. He continued these attacks, chipping away at the beast and occasionally drawing more black blood. All the while, the anger of the uoko grew.

The men of the Capkecka tribe gave short cheers as Pa’hu stung his adversary time and time again while the Clan of the Uoko watched with stony eyes.

“Night will surely come before this battle ends,” griped Vergud.

Pa’hu did not agree. He clapped another fistful of snow to his abdomen. He would bleed out long before then.

With that thought, he sent a brutal jab at his opponent. Claws sped toward his retreating form—a narrow miss, but a harrowing reminder of what could happen if the uoko lost its temper. If only it would, I might get somewhere.

The idea stuck with him. To provoke an uoko was dangerous. On one hand, an angry beast was a vulnerable beast, but Pa’hu risked being torn apart in the process.

He traded his weapon for a longsword, the better to stay out of reach while continuing his infuriating thrusts and jabs. He pressed forward. A feint was followed by a stab to the face. The uoko clawed the air, its retaliatory strikes becoming predictable. A barrage of harassing thrusts later and the creature was roaring to the heavens. It wanted to be free to tear the limbs from Pa’hu’s body.

Any time now and it would attempt just that.

Or so he thought. Several minutes later, several minutes of careful footwork and precise strokes as the snow between their feet became a slush of black and red, little had changed. Pa’hu did not fool himself: the wounds he inflicted were needle pricks to a beast of the uoko’s size and strength. It would take a hundred if not a thousand to score a kill. He didn’t have the stamina to prick it to death, and despite the beast’s obvious frustration, it stayed true to its intent of protecting its beliei.

The shouts of encouragement had died down. Onlookers took seats. Some glanced down the mountainside at the expanse of rock and snow below. Pa’hu’s own men had tired of this contest with no winner. That would change, one way or another.

Pa’hu delivered his next sword slap with a chuckle. He snickered after jabbing the beast and whooped at the uoko’s clumsy counterattack after it was slashed in the knee. Bored Northerners turned in puzzlement at the display.

Another slice, another bellyful of mirth. Pa’hu infused every movement with his amusement. The uoko seemed more perturbed by the sword pokes than the mocking at its expense. Its young master, though, felt differently.

“Why are you laughing?” he demanded.

“It’s such a pitiful thing,” said Pa’hu. “It’s hard not to laugh.”

The boy curled his lip in anger. “It is an uoko, the most powerful creature to roam these mountains. Lay yourself at its feet and I may let you live.”

Pa’hu gave a derisive snort. “This one is no wild beast to fear. This one acts like you are its dirksa.” The comment elicited laughs from those watching.

In a show of bravado, Pa’hu double-jabbed the uoko’s midsection before leaping out of the way, all the while looking as if he could barely keep from rolling around the snow in delight.

“Stop that!” demanded the beliei.

But this only made Pa’hu laugh harder.

“I said stop it!”

By now, Pa’hu was in the throes of such mirth that he wasn’t even attacking anymore. He was bent over, almost on his knees in hysterics. The boy growled at the top of his lungs in a language only an uoko would understand. But Pa’hu could tell it was a command, a harsh command to be followed without question. Like an unchained rabid animal, the uoko thundered toward Pa’hu. No more a protector, it came to destroy its prey.

Pa’hu had been waiting for this moment. The nihini had proven too loyal to abandon its defensive stance, no matter its anger. But by goading the boy, Pa’hu had gotten his wish. Seeing the uoko bearing down upon him, he wondered if he’d made a terrible mistake.

The creature was on top of him in a flash, tearing hunks of flesh from his shoulder and scraping the surface of his neck, spinning him sideways. Another swipe caught the crown of his head. Nails raked at his skull, and blood soaked his flowing locks.

He fell backward, regaining his balance at the edge of the rectangle. Should he fall out, the battle would be over. His men looked ready to catch him, perhaps even to pull him to safety. A part of him wondered if that would be best. He had fought bravely. Should he be knocked out of the rectangle, instead of being brutally killed inside, he would lose no respect.

He dismissed the momentary weakness. If he were to back down, all the other clans would serve at the feet of Vergud. Already there had been too much sacrifice, too many generations filled with cold, hunger, and desolation. When Pa’hu became Schie Kalro, he would lead his people to the ghasiv lands where they would have their revenge. They would live and hunt on the warm plains, and the cycle of clan killing clan would at last come to an end.

A giant paw swung at Pa’hu, intended to decapitate. It was the move he had been waiting for—an attack meant to finish him without regard to what would happen should it fail. The air whooshed; he somehow dodged. Adding a second hand to his sword hilt, he shoved it forward, connecting with the uoko.

The momentum of the creature’s attack added to the devastation. The blade stopped only when the handguard pressed against the beast’s body. At last, Pa’hu’s pin became a spike, a prick became a stab. Black blood flowed freely.

If Pa’hu had been fighting another human, even one so large as Vergud, the battle would have been over. His adversary would have already fallen into death’s shadow. An uoko was a different matter. Massive and resilient, a creature of the hunt, it would not even register its wounds until all of its enemies were dead.

The uoko sent a shaggy mitt across Pa’hu’s jaw. His neck wrenched in agony. He fell to the snow, ears ringing. A dull echo came to him—his name was being called; hands tried to pull him up, but he collapsed to his knees. His weapon had been yanked from him, but somehow a broadsword ended up in his hand. The shape of an enormous foot crashed into the snow before him and a bellow split the air, startling him from his stupor.

Now to end this contest.

Pa’hu raised his sword hilt first as a giant paw came slicing in. He brought the blade down, piercing a shaggy white foot, and drove it deep into the snow. Diving, rolling, he scythed between the uoko’s legs as it stripped flesh from his backside. He rose and sprinted toward the beliei. He could hear the beast behind him, yanking at its stuck foot, wailing in anger.

For the first time, Pa’hu came face-to-face with his Rulakon opponent. The young clansman reached for his hunting knife. Pa’hu needed no weapon. With his bare hands, he clasped the head of the youth and twisted hard to the left. The boy’s neck swiveled and broke with a loud snap. He crumpled to the ground. Dead.

Unfortunately, no one told the uoko it was over. Upon seeing its master fall, the nihini became frenzied, ripping its foot from the snow, oblivious that a chunk of itself was still pinned by the blade. A fountain of black poured onto the snow as it loped toward Pa’hu with single-minded intent. By the time Pa’hu had grabbed the beliei’s hunting knife, the uoko was already within killing distance.

A Capkecka warrior leapt onto its back, saving Pa’hu from certain death. Massive claws peeled the clansman off. When its gaze returned, the uoko found its prey was missing.

Pa’hu’s men picked up their bows. Arrows struck the creature in the head and chest. Its hardened skin kept them from piercing deeply, even at this distance, and whatever pain it felt seemed buried well below it consciousness. The maddened uoko spun around, searching. It spotted Pa’hu at the other end of the rectangle and charged once more.

This time, he was ready. The uoko barreled forward carelessly in its lust for vengeance. Pa’hu drove his knife upward. Steel hit its mark beneath the uoko’s chin. Snow-white arms slick with black blood wrapped around Pa’hu in a deathly embrace. He felt the air leave his body. Ribs cracked. The world became hazy. He let go of the dagger.

The beast flung Pa’hu to the snow. More feathered shafts punctured its fur. As Pa’hu struggled for consciousness, he saw blood-soaked claws and then a glint of steel. The uoko fell onto its back, the enormous blade of a great axe protruding from its chest. Arrows rained down upon it, this time from every direction as the Rulakon bowmen joined in.

For several moments, the uoko lay unmoving. The hairs on its face were parted, revealing a dark eye softening in despair. Somehow the creature staggered to its feet, lust no longer in its heart. Instead, it stood with hunched shoulders, gazing at its master. It took two laborious steps toward him before being buried under the barrage of arrows. A final whimper could be heard, an arm reached out toward its beliei, and then the uoko went still.

Pa’hu lay in a powdery bed wet with blood. He heard the voice of men offering words of congratulation. The pain was tremendous. He could not speak.

The sun shining above him became blocked by the bald head of the man who had saved him. “I live only to serve you, Schie Kalro,” said Vergud, chieftain of the Rulakon clan.

And then pain won out, and darkness claimed him.

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 46: A Precarious Plan

 

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 44: The Start of a War http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-44-the-start-of-a-war/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-44-the-start-of-a-war/#respond Wed, 13 Dec 2017 12:01:02 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5196

The Start of a War

 

 

“You see, it all started last fall,” Biltrin began. The others formed a circle around him. Zeph scooted in—he always did love a good story. “There was a growing worry among the merchants with the number of caravan raids going on.”

“Most of the Western Kingdoms’ wealth comes from trade the merchant caravans bring, so King Reginald is keen to solve this problem. At first, everyone thinks the raids are coming from a band of brigands. Then something interesting happens: Rives—you know, the head of PIKE—he tells Prince Peldrin that his goods are being looted by soldiers from Nastadra. No one in his right mind believes this, of course. Nastadra and the Western Kingdoms have been on good terms since before my granddad’s time, and that’s saying somethin’.”

He stopped for a swig from his canteen before continuing. “But this Rives has the king’s son eating this tale up. He convinces the prince, who in turn convinces his father, to send soldiers to watch over the next caravan, all piled up with goods pretty as you please. Lo and behold, they’re attacked, and all the king’s men are wiped out. When more soldiers are sent to investigate, they find the caravan’s contents nearby in Uthgar—which just so happens to fall within the Nastadran border.”

“Seems awfully careless of them,” said Zeph. He had made arrangements with fences before, and the first rule was to move the goods far away from the scene of the crime.

Biltrin nodded gravely. “Uthgar denounces the accusations. They claim an unguarded caravan—just so happened, stocked to the brim—showed up outside their city the day before. Needless to say, King Reginald finds this story absurd. Besides, there’d been reports of Nastadran soldiers in the area at the time of the attack. So at the urging of Rives, war’s declared.”

A stunned silence followed. Daen asked, “Have the armies met in battle?”

“Last I heard, the Western Kingdoms was getting ready to march on Nastadra. King Rohr has no choice but to defend his people.”

Zeph played with the dirt in front of him. “So what do you have to do with all this?”

“What if I told you that all the king’s men weren’t wiped out in the raid, that one survived?” said Biltrin. “That I survived.”

Copius’s face lit up. “And we’re taking you to the king to give a firsthand account of what happened?”

“Except that it is not how everyone presumes it is,” said Daen.

“No, it ain’t. Not even a little. The attackers wore the colors of Nastadran soldiers, mind you. But when they were done with the dirty work and all of us were lying bloody on the ground, they spoke to one another. They didn’t have no southern accent, you see. And what they said…” His voice became a hollow whisper. “They said they were to report back to Rives about the success they had.”

Copius was at a loss. “Th-That doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone have their own caravan waylaid?”

“Not so loud,” Biltrin urged. “Information like this ain’t safe anywhere.”

Selgrin kept his voice to a low growl. “Cope’s got a point. No one would do that on purpose. Losing a caravan of goods could wipe a merchant out. Even for PIKE, it’s much more than a toe stub.”

Zeph was about to burst. Of course it made sense. “Unless it turns out having your goods stolen is the fastest way to sell them.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Selgrin.

“My Alliance handler told me that King Reginald was reimbursing PIKE for any merchandise lost to bandits. So essentially, they didn’t lose a thing.”

“Some scheme.” Selgrin nodded approvingly. “With the merchandise gone, who’s to say how much of the stuff there really was? Or what the goods are worth, for that matter. They could end up doubling their coin without selling a thing.”

Cahrin knitted her eyebrow together. “There must be more to it than simply amassing gold crowns. I mean, I wouldn’t put it past a ghasiv to lie and cheat in order to garner what wasn’t rightfully his, but the whole plan doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why dress mercenaries as Nastadran soldiers at all? What does PIKE gain from causing a war?”

“Tough to say for sure, though the merchant consortiums never have had much luck in Nastadra.”

Daen stroked his chin in thought. “An expansion of the Western Kingdoms would give PIKE more room to operate. But any type of prolonged war could crimp trade, warrant additional taxes to fund the conflict, and possibly stop the king’s reimbursement program.”

“I guess the only thing we know for certain,” said Selgrin, “is getting Biltrin in the same room with the king is our best bet to stop this war.”

Zeph was impressed. Biltrin was a lot more interesting than he’d given him credit for. This story of his had danger, intrigue, suspense, and like any good tale, it piqued his curiosity rather than quenched his thirst.

He stood abruptly, dusting off his pants. It was time to go in search of answers.

 

Section Break

 

The Merchant Faire was an entire city constructed in an area that a short time ago had been little more than a trading settlement on the Laiyn River. Hundreds of temporary stalls packed the streets. Performers hobbled by on stilts, breathing fire and showing off their acrobatic skills. Food was plentiful, from meat pies to cheeses and fruits, and a bar lined with kegs of ale and surrounded by tables was never far from sight.

Outside the makeshift city, tents and hastily constructed shelters pressed up against one another in neighborly fashion. Zeph had been lucky to find them one of the last available campsites.

This morning was the opening ceremony, and like the enormous crowd around them, they had come to see the king—only they were hoping to speak with him, too. King Reginald stood on a giant temporary stage in the center of town accompanied by a cadre of his soldiers. Also present was Prince Peldrin with Rives at his shoulder, flanked by PIKE merchant guards. It was a strange sight Zeph had seen a lot of lately, the two factions of armored men working side by side.

“So what do you think?” Zeph said. “Will we be able to get King’s Reginald’s attention?”

Cahrin glanced at the twenty feet of bodies separating them from the stage. “I think the only way he’ll notice us is if we make an attempt on his life.”

Hmm… He placed a hand on Venytier, then caught Cahrin’s ridiculing eye. “What? You said it was the only way.”

The king finished a short speech welcoming visitors to the Merchant Faire and was escorted offstage. Prince Peldrin followed his father, but Rives and his armored entourage went in the opposite direction.

Daen spoke, barely audible over the departing crowd. “Biltrin and I will determine what it takes to gain an audience with the king. Sel, can you change into something to follow Rives?”

“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. The last food merchant we passed had fresh rat and pigeon on a stick.”

“I’ll go,” said Zeph. After all, following discreetly was part of his trade.

For some reason Daen looked less than thrilled. “Anyone care to join him?”

Copius raised his hand.

“Oh, c’mon,” Zeph exclaimed. “How do you expect me to do my job with a red-robed monk at my heels?”

“Be nice,” admonished Cahrin.

“He knows I don’t mean anything by—”

“It’s Auburn,” added Copius, with a woeful expression.

“Anyway, you know what I’m getting at, right?” Zeph said.

“Sure, I understand. Why would you want some clumsy monk mucking things up?”

“It’s not like that,” said Zeph. “You’re just not trained for these types of things, that’s all.”

Daen cast a consoling smile to Copius and then Sel. “Certainly one clumsy monk is not half as bad as a grumpy old dogar.”

“That’s grumpy middle-aged dogar.” Selgrin folded his arms in protest, to which Daen let out a long-suffering sigh.

“Perhaps we should continue to discuss this until we lose sight of them.”

“It’s settled,” said Zeph, starting away before he could be stopped. “I’ll go alone and meet the rest of you back at camp.”

“Fine, but no heroics, Zeph,” Daen called after him.

“‘No heroics,’” he muttered in imitation as he established a safe distance behind Rives and his guardsmen. “He might as well have said ‘no fun.’”

They progressed through Dirn’s Outpost in serpentine fashion. Zeph decided a merchant must have been responsible for the faire’s design, as every stall had to be passed when traveling between the stage and the city’s main gate. It wasn’t hard to imagine a single burning stall blocking the path of all those trying to leave. The least they could have done was to ban the fire-eaters.

Rives and his armored entourage marched out of the city and into the sea of campsites. It wasn’t until they left the last of the tents behind did Zeph realize where they were heading. Not far off was a large warehouse on the riverbank. Where else would the head of a merchant guild be going?

It turned out to be less a storage facility than a fortified keep, with sentries around its perimeter and a defensive position a minor lord would envy. The back of the building nestled up to a narrowing section of the Laiyn River, just wide enough for a single barge to dock. To the east, a lightly wooded area offered minimal cover. Intersecting the trees and the road was a ridge, sloping steeply a dozen feet downward.

Zeph made his way to the top of the ridge and watched Rives enter the warehouse unmolested. He couldn’t discern much from his vantage point. He slid three-quarters of the way to the bottom, leapt to flat ground then scrambled over to a boulder for cover. He made out a handful of guards on the first level of the warehouse, all of them wrapped in gleaming steel.

Something beyond the trees caught Zeph’s eye: a dark-clad horseman also watching the warehouse. He smiled to himself. It appeared he wasn’t the only one interested in what Rives was up to.

“Turn around,” growled a voice behind him.

Zeph cursed under his breath. He did what he was told and found himself facing a crossbow-toting PIKE footman, either a sentry roamer or one returning from some errand.

“What are you doing here?” asked the footman.

He tried to put on his most innocent face. “Here specifically, or do you mean here at the faire?”

“I mean right now, hiding behind the boulder, nosing around.”

Excuses ranging from chasing a runaway gold crown to an afternoon scavenger hunt didn’t feel promising. Zeph went simple. “If you must know, I happened to see this warehouse while I was taking a jaunt and thought I’d have a look.”

The footman gave Zeph the once-over: wolf-decimated leather armor, Venytier at his belt, and more throwing daggers than one could easily count. Clearly, he was having none of it. “You’d better come with me.”

I definitely need to spend more time practicing my innocent face. “How nice, a guided tour. I hope you’ll be including breathtaking views of the river with that.”

The crossbowman pushed him forward. He obviously had no sense of humor.

They walked in full view of the other sentries on their way to the warehouse. Once past them, Zeph’s prospects for escape would become nil. He risked a sidelong glance toward the trees. The man on horseback continued his vigilance. He was above them and unreachable by foot, but still in range of a crossbow.

Zeph slowed and turned around. “Okay, you got me. I was spying on Rives.”

“Tell it to the master.”

The first of the warehouse perimeter sentries stood just ahead. Zeph continued in a hushed voice. “If you don’t hear me out, the one who’s really behind this will get away.”

The footman stopped about six feet from Zeph, crossbow at the ready. “Carry on, or I’ll be dragging your corpse the rest of the way.”

“I can prove it,” Zeph said. “The man who paid me to be here is hiding in those trees to your right.” He tipped his head to indicate the general direction.

The footman glanced over and then back at Zeph. “I don’t see nothin’.”

“Try again. He’s on a horse. Look toward that fat tree near the edge.”

Eyes swept to the side, then froze. “I got him.”

“He paid me two silver crowns to crouch down behind that boulder. Tall, mysterious sort. But his coin was all the same.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“Oh, c’mon. Even a dumb oaf of a sentry could tell I’m being used as a decoy.”

The dumb oaf of a sentry contorted his face, not keen on being insulted. Fortunately, he found Zeph more credible when casting blame than professing innocence.

He pointed his crossbow toward the trees. “Stay put or I’ll shoot!”

The horseman snapped his heels back, and his mount sprang away. The footman’s bolt was released, but not before Zeph barreled into him, sending him crunching to the ground and his shot high and wide.

Zeph was on his feet and sprinting for the ridge. He glanced back. The nearest sentry was on one knee, steadying his crossbow. Zeph broke left. A bolt went whistling by.

He kept at it, huffing with every step. The only other sentry within range was too far to score a hit, not at this distance, a fact his face categorically disagreed with after a steel shaft flew past, nearly skinning his cheek.

And who said this wouldn’t be fun?

He raced at full speed. The downed footman would be preparing a second shot by now. And what about the stranger on horseback? He’d have to leave the grove of trees and cross the ridge to make his own escape.

Zeph hit the base of the ridge and sprang to the top in four strides.

“Halt!” He heard the shout behind him from his original captor.

His options were limited. Surrendering would put him at the mercy of Rives. Fleeing could result in a bolt through the spine. And yet he refused to believe that Dela had chosen to end his thread here at the hands of some PIKE footman.

A drumbeat of hooves preceded the horseman, who burst from the trees so close to Zeph that he lost his footing. Flailing his arms, he fell backward off the ridge.

The sky was above him, the horse thundering by. A hand snaked out and grabbed him in mid-fall, securing him underneath an arm. There was a flash of steel, the sound of a bolt tearing the wind, and then they were away.

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 45: Schie Kalro

 

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 43: The Crow’s Message http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-43-in-search-of-a-king/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-43-in-search-of-a-king/#respond Sat, 09 Dec 2017 12:01:31 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5256

The Crow’s Message

 

 

Raven had expected a death sentence. What he got was his own bulstan keeper: an imposing warden who watched over him even during his sleep, never more than a dozen steps away. No longer was Raven a guest. He was trapped, unable to leave the confines of the campsite.

If that wasn’t enough, Gyste had been acting like a spoiled child, avoiding even the simplest attempt at conversation. This was unfortunate. Raven had grown to accept the kobold’s company. In fact, the days prior were the first in memory that he welcomed anyone’s presence. Now he was very much on his own, something he had become accustomed to before meeting Gyste. Something he would get used to again.

He came to some clear conclusions during this time of solitude: He had never served the Afflicted One. And even if he had somehow been complicit to the dark dealings of Azren, it did not change his present determination to kill Azren and all his followers. Simply knowing this put his mind at ease, allowing him to focus on his next course of action.

It was early evening. The latest message from Azren had arrived. Gyste was in his tent when Raven entered holding a cup of tea. He appeared troubled.

“Bad news?” inquired Raven.

“Not all is going according to plan.” Gyste accepted the offered tea, inhaling a deep breath of the aroma before taking a long sip, his eyes glazing over in satisfaction. “Ah, you certainly make grequin better than I. You always did.”

Raven was nonplussed by the last statement. The conversation invariably came back to the way things had been, or at least how Gyste said they had been.

“Any fool can make grequin tea with the right ingredients,” he said.

Gyste gave a low chortle. “I believe that was an insult.”

“Take it as you will.”

“I have missed our banter. And…I’m sorry for the way I’ve been treating you.” He paused, then took on a more serious tone. “You know they have all given up on you. Even Azren. I alone believe you will return to us. If that dogar cretin breathes a word of your presence to the master, it could cost me my life.”

Raven stared back coldly.

“Don’t you have anything to say?” asked Gyste as he probed Raven’s expression over his cup of tea. It was only with each other they could expose their faces without drawing attention. “An apology, perhaps? Or at least a promise you will not again put me in danger?”

Raven let out a deep, silent breath. He had traveled with Gyste to gain information. It was time he completed his objective.

“Tell me Azren’s plans.” His eyes moved to the parchment resting on the kobold’s lap.

“I see you’re insistent on getting me into trouble.” It was said in a lighthearted manner—quite likely the last thing he would say that way. “If only I could share it with you, perhaps it would lessen my burden. But not until I am sure of your allegiance.”

Gyste gave a short cough.

“That is how it begins,” intoned Raven.

“How what begins?”

“The first symptom of nagali poisoning is the cough. Then your chest feels like it’s contracting. Death follows shortly.”

Gyste looked down at his near empty cup in disbelief. “You would not.”

“You do not know me as you claim.” He tapped a metal vial fastened to his belt. “I have the antidote to the poison. I suggest you answer my question while your words are still discernible.”

The shocked expression on the kobold’s face turned to acceptance. “I guess it’s I who was wrong about you, Raven.” Gyste shook his head sadly. “I would have told you everything anyway, once you had come back to us. But it seems whatever has tainted your mind is not so easily cleansed.”

A fit of coughing overcame the kobold for several seconds, and his eyes teared up.

“Straight to the point,” he said hoarsely. “Azren’s forces are on the march, as you may have guessed. Yet the master has suffered some setbacks. He has decided—” His sentence ended with a violent hack that doubled him over. “Go ahead and read it yourself.”

He pressed the parchment into Raven’s hands. Reading it sent a tremble through him, knowing that it came from the Afflicted One.

“Outside,” he ordered. He followed Gyste through a slit in the tent, tucking the parchment into his belt. “Tell the bulstan to go back to their master.”

Gyste turned to Raven with pleading eyes. “If they return to Azren, he will know something is amiss. I could—” He paused to stifle a cough. “I could be punished quite horribly.”

“Send them.”

“Perhaps for old time’s sake.” Raven’s uncompassionate stare was the only answer he received. “Of course. I’ll do what you ask.”

The kobold called the bulstan over. Without hesitation, they started out northward, all but Raven’s assigned warden which took up its previous position, watching and waiting.

“Why does it not leave?” asked Raven.

“Go, now.” The order was clear, yet still the bulstan ignored it. Gyste shrugged. “I believe it is following a directive from Azren himself. My orders—” He interrupted himself with several short coughs, ending with a long one that gave the impression a lung was about to be discharged. “My orders are secondary to his.”

“So it seems.” Raven’s gaze followed the retreating bulstan until they disappeared into the night.

“The antidote, please, Raven.” Gyste’s voice had turned raspy.

“You do the bidding of my mortal enemy. I cannot let you live.”

“You said—”

“I said only that I had the antidote.”

An upheaval of coughs laid Gyste prone, arms crossed over his chest. His next words were so ragged Raven could barely understand him.

“I saved your life. I kept you from being killed.” His hand reached out toward Raven. “I believed in you.”

Raven was surprised that the plea moved him. It was as if Gyste had latched on to some piece of his past, a time when he had cared about more than merely ridding the world of Azren. He realized killing Gyste might destroy any last vestige of humanity still residing somewhere within him—and yet he convinced himself these servants of Azren were pillars that must each crumble if he was going to bring it all crashing down.

“Farewell.” He turned away so he would not see the kobold’s last dying breath.

“I…I may be your only friend.”

Until recently, he had not known what he’d been missing or the responsibilities it entailed. “Friendship is something I can ill afford.”

But even as he said it, he wondered if it had to be this way, if it had to end right now. He had learned Azren’s plans and the secrets of the gems from Gyste. Certainly there was more information to be had—for instance, details about his own past, should he let Gyste live a few more days or perhaps longer than that.

A cocoon of darkness suddenly enveloped his senses, similar to what he’d experienced in the courtyard with Kreeb, a black so pitch it smothered light and sound. He was attempting to walk his way out of it when something slammed into the back of his legs. He fell forward, pressed to the ground. Probed. Groped. A tug at his belt confirmed what Gyste was after.

He could not stop him; Gyste was too quick, too desperate. When it was over, when Raven no longer felt the pressure of a knee against his spine or the feel of sharp, greedy digits, he was left face down on the cold grass.

The blackness dissipated slowly. Raven pushed himself to a standing position. Gyste lay prone, his right hand clasped an open vial. Part of his jaw was missing. The kobold had mistakenly taken the vial of acid instead of the antidote.

He had deserved a better death. But a voice resonated in Raven’s head: Death is like a victorious battle—it does not matter how it happens, only that it happens. Gyste had died like he must. The kobold had been capable and smart. One less servant meant one more jab in the side of Azren. It was not for Raven to feel remorse.

Making for his mount, he found his departure blocked by the remaining bulstan. The creature appeared to be following multiple orders. Gyste had given him instructions to watch over him and prevent his escape, while Azren’s command had prohibited him from leaving Gyste’s company.

Raven stepped back, pulling his long, thin swords from their sheaths. The bulstan watched without outward reaction.

“I wonder,” said Raven to himself, “from where you came.” The bulstan had a warrior’s body with powerful arms and shoulders and a disfigured face. Even scarred as Raven was, he could not imagine being uglier than this bulstan. “No matter—you shall die all the same.”

He plunged both swords deep into the creature’s chest.

It let out an anguished howl. Thick, burgundy blood spilled out, running down the blade, coating Raven’s hands. That should have been the end. For any normal man, it would have been.

A meaty white fist pummeled Raven’s neck, temporarily crumpling his airway. He abandoned his swords in the bulstan’s chest, stumbling backward, gasping for air. Another blow hit him below the ribs. He doubled over. A forearm like a steel rod slammed into his ear. He struggled to breathe. Two fists pounded his back. He collapsed to the turf beside the mutilated figure of Gyste.

The beating paused, and when Raven looked up, he saw the bulstan reaching for a hefty scimitar to finish the job. He rolled to the right, feeling the wake of the falling scimitar. The next attack came quicker still. He managed to parry with his stiletto, but the bulstan knocked the dagger away, grazing his shoulder.

The landscape offered no cover. His weapons were out of reach, embedded in his foe, and illusion had been proven useless against the bulstan. He grabbed what was nearest him, Gyste’s corpse, and used it as a shield.

The scimitar struck with such force it nearly split the corpse in half. The kobold’s hand, still clutching the vial of acid, flopped. Burning liquid splashed onto Raven’s hand, a fraction of the searing agony Gyste must have felt swallowing the liquid fire.

The bulstan tossed the carcass away—once its superior, now a hindrance. It lifted the scimitar for a killing blow. Raven got up on his knees, clenching the vial he’d taken from Gyste. A final gift. He tossed the acid into the bulstan’s face. The creature dropped its weapon to grope at its white marble eyes, moaning hideously.

Raven leapt up and made for his horse. Into the saddle, hands on reins, feet in stirrups—only then did he notice the sounds of the night, loud in the absence of the creature’s cries of anguish. He glanced about to find no sign of anyone or anything.

“Gone,” he whispered.

Gone. Memories rushed back. He was no longer at the campsite but on the ledge outside his prison window. It was cold, mercilessly cold. Voices drifted to him from the other side of the wall.

“Why do you suppose he stopped?”

“Who knows? Usually they go all quiet right before they die—but I wouldn’t think so, not him.” A lock clicked; a few moments later, another. “The master said to check on him if it happens. That’s all.”

“Let’s get on with it then.”

Another lock clicked. “The master could have made it a lot easier.”

“I’ll tell him you said that.”

“You wouldn’t dare. Your knees would be knocking too loudly for him to even hear you speak. Last one—did you make sure the gate behind us is secure?”

“Yeah, Karn’s got it. We’re now officially stuck in here with him.”

“What are you afraid of? You think he’s going to break his bindings and squeeze the life out of you bare-handed?”

A final click of a lock and the door ground open. Raven mentally readied himself for the illusion he was about to perform.

“Where is he?”

“Gone! The bars have been removed. Could he have escaped?”

“It’s a long way down.” A head poked out and looked left then right. Eyes stared straight past Raven.

Raven grabbed the guard by his chain mail and yanked him through the window to his death.

“What in Goznedra’s name?” The remaining guard made for the unlocked door and the steel portcullis behind it. “Karn, let me out. Let me out now!”

Raven came back through the window under guise of an illusion. To the guard in front of him and the one called Karn, he was Azren, draped in black, face hooded.

“Master, tell Karn to open up.” The guard clung to the portcullis, trying to lift it up.

While the illusion may not have been believable, Raven knew the guard wanted it to be true. Otherwise, he was locked alone in a room with the most dangerous of captives.

“You let him escape,” Raven said with the master’s lips. He grabbed the guard by the neck and choked him with pale hands and an iron grip until his thrashings ceased. His victim slumped to the floor.

“Raise the portcullis, Karn,” he said in the voice of Azren, “or you’ll be next.”

“Th-Those tricks won’t work with me. I’ll get the real master.”

Footsteps padded away, leaving him alone to consider the situation. The portcullis could not be raised from this side. Azren would come and exact his toll. He shuddered.

He turned back to the window, his mind already at work. If he imagined he was a bird—a giant raven—maybe, just maybe, he could convince the wind that the illusion was true. That’s what he would do—what he would have to do if he was to avoid what Azren had in store for him. With a running start, he threw himself into the night.

Raven found himself sweating, his steed shuffling anxiously beneath him. How long had he allowed himself to lose focus? He realized Gyste had been right about his failed escape, about the name Raven—probably about most of the things he’d said.

The horse whinnied nervously, a reminder it was time to leave.

He lifted the reins just as a wall of white slammed into the horse, sending them careening to the ground. He only just managed to slip his leg out of the stirrup before it was crushed beneath the horse. Its hindquarters caught the edge of his boot, pinning him in place.

The bulstan stood above him with intent to kill, and Raven was helpless to stop it.

The bulstan’s blade came down forcefully, spraying dirt and grass everywhere but missing Raven by a wide margin. He yanked at his foot to no avail as a second stroke struck the turf to the left of his ankle.

The creature grunted. Raven noticed for the first time that its face and eyes were gray everywhere the acid had touched. He stopped his struggles and lay still, reviewing his options. The scimitar came down a third and fourth time, no closer to scoring a hit but near enough to be unnerving.

The bulstan lifted its nose to the air. Carefully, Raven reached for a vial at his belt and twisted the cork, unleashing the smell of the sewage he had gathered in the Undercity. It caught the attention of the bulstan, whose own body gave off the aroma of old vegetables stored in a box for a month. Raven could not help thinking it must have sensed a kindred spirit.

The bulstan hovered above him, sniffing, and then leaned in. Its powder-white body was now inches away, smooth with chiseled muscles—a statue come to life. The hilts of Raven’s swords protruded invitingly from its chest, but as soon as Raven claimed them, the bulstan would know exactly where he was. It would be a contest of speed.

Raven plucked the blades from the chest cavity. The bulstan gave a tortured moan, then lunged. Raven did not strike. No time for that. Instead, he redirected the points upward. The weight of the creature came crushing down on top of Raven. Blood sheeted across his face.

It took a moment to realize he was unharmed. In the creature’s eagerness to kill, it had thrown itself onto Raven’s blades, practically decapitating itself.

Raven pushed the corpse to one side. Its alabaster skin glowed in the light of the moon, just a lifeless husk, its viscous blood seeping into the grass reeds like mud. He pried his foot free from the fallen horse. The stallion had been knocked unconscious and was more thunderstruck than anything. With coaxing, it stood and took a few cursory steps.

Raven lingered over the remains of Gyste, the only companion he could remember who did not fear, loathe, or pity him. Not so long ago, Gyste had given a carefree chuckle; now the kobold was little more than food for scavengers.

He blamed Azren for the murder of Gyste. It was he who had forced Raven’s hand and he who must pay the ultimate price.

His resolve stiffened. His heart added another layer of stone around it. He felt good—better than good. His life’s mission shone more brightly than ever. He would kill Azren as sure as the trees reached for the sky, as sure as he breathed. As sure as Gyste would never rise again.

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 44: The Start of a Way

 

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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 42: Wolf Encounter http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-42-wolf-encounter/ http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/tendrils-of-darkness-chapter-42-wolf-encounter/#respond Wed, 06 Dec 2017 00:56:02 +0000 http://bestfantasybooks.com/blog/?p=5251

Wolf Encounter

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is Biltrin?” asked Daen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a challenge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not over,” said Daen.

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

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

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

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

“Get up,” Daen urged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selgrin stared back in confusion.

“Weren’t you—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So I’ve heard,” he mumbled back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

==> Continue Reading Chapter 43: The Crow’s Message

 

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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