Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 26: Late-Night Encounters
Late-Night Encounters Zeph risked a furtive...
Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 26: Late-Night Encounters
Late-Night Encounters Zeph risked a furtive...
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Etta placed a steaming hot rag that smelled of sage and rootgranite on Cahrin’s forehead. “It’s to shock the system back to its normal state,” she explained.
Daen nodded in anxious silence.
Cahrin lay unmoving on top of the residence’s only bed. Rags had been laid across her ankles and wrists and now her forehead. Etta scurried from her patient to the nearby sitting room, picked up a pair of wooden tongs, and fished another scalding rag from a pot hung over the fireplace. She let the rag rest on the side of the pot until it had sufficiently cooled before using it to replace one at Cahrin’s ankle. She continued the exchange, shuttling between rooms.
“We don’t see many here from the Isle of Nalesc,” she said.
He tried not to look surprised by the observation. If it had come from anyone but an elder Carc in a hidden valley, he might have been worried. But he knew no matter how many Nalescian soldiers were sent looking for him, they wouldn’t search here. “What makes you think I am from Nalesc?”
“You may have lost the accent, but old Etta can tell.”
He had done more than lose his accent; he’d spent years erasing it.
“It’s in the eyes,” she said in answer to his questioning stare. “Generations of watching the shores, I presume, has shaped them differently.”
As someone who made his living noticing things that others did not, Daen gained immediate respect for the Carc healer.
She continued to fish for validation. “Is King Lywrin still the liege lord?”
“Last I heard, he still reigns over Nalesc.” This was getting awkward. He wrung his hands and frowned as he studied Cahrin’s prone form, hoping to change the subject. “Will she regain her health?”
“What do you think?” She made her way back to the fireplace.
Was she testing him, or did she want his honest opinion? “I have never seen anything like it. She appears to be in a deep slumber. Originally, her skin was a normal color, her lips were moist, and her breathing was even. But these past two days, she has gone into a decline.”
“Exactly. As strong as she is physically, without a healthy spirit, her body will slowly waste away.” She emphasized her point by letting a used rag slide from her fingers into the crock of boiling water.
“What is wrong with her spirit?”
“Your being is made up of both a physical form and a spirit form. The spirit is called upon when performing magic. Use too much at once, and it’s like losing too much blood. Before you know it—phewt.” She slapped her hands together. “Gone.”
He wasn’t sure how to ask the next question without just asking it. “Is it…too late for her?”
“Only Dela knows if her thread continues.”
He’d been hoping Etta would put his mind at ease, but apparently the ways of the spirit were too inscrutable even for her. He stifled a yawn. Lack of sleep and the strain of worrying over Cahrin had taken their toll. Yet that was the duty of a sentinel, was it not? To watch over those who needed it. What he should have been doing the night Elise had left.
He straightened his shoulders and mustered what energy he could. “My services are yours to command. How can I help?”
Etta returned a look meant for a rambunctious child. “There is nothing to be done but wait, young warrior of Nalesc. Right now, it is time for you to rest and build up your own strength. It is likely you will need it soon.”
He did not wish to sleep, not while Cahrin remained in this state. But as if Etta’s words were magic, he soon drifted off and did not wake until well past dark. Cahrin was propped up in bed with Etta spooning her small portions of a thick orange soup. Another bowl sat on the side table near Daen, still steaming. The savory aroma reminded him of the pumpkin porridge he’d grown up on. He realized how famished he was and dug in.
“How is she doing?” he asked between eager spoonfuls. The rich taste was not pumpkin but something sweeter, lending an invigorating tingle that spread through his body.
Etta finished feeding Cahrin and repositioned her flat on the bed. “We will know more tomorrow.” She took the bowls back to the kitchen.
Outside of the clinking dishes from Etta’s direction, the only discernible sound Daen could hear was the faint chirping of crickets in the distance. He knew now Zeph had been right to bring them here. If Cahrin could be saved, Etta was her best hope.
“No, no!” Cahrin shouted, sitting up in bed.
Daen felt a surge of exuberance. “Cahrin—” he began, before realizing she was as pale as the walls, her eyes glazed, her face devoid of expression.
“Please forgive me,” she continued, despite her catatonic state.
Etta came rushing in. She grabbed Cahrin by the wrist, leaning in, their noses almost touching.
Cahrin took no notice; she was in another place, another time. “I didn’t want to lose him . . . Too late—I know . . . too late . . .” She collapsed backward as if invisible hands propping her up had let go.
“Is she . . .?” He couldn’t continue.
Cahrin lay pale and lifeless.
“Your friend is no worse or better than she was before.” Etta sat down on the rocking chair opposite Daen. Clasping Cahrin’s hand in her own, she rocked slowly and rhythmically as she hummed.
Zeph could hardly contain his anticipation, fingers tapping together on their own accord while his brothers gathered in the Adalhelm’s main assembly. A host of new faces intermingled with those Zeph recognized. Some gave him a simple nod of acknowledgment from across the room, while others came by to bestow a more proper welcome.
He sidestepped an arcing staff and moved in past the swipe with a bear hug for his close friend Baldric. As classmates, they had stirred up their share of trouble together.
“I see you’re still as slow as ever,” Zeph remarked.
Baldric bore a grin as wide as the Daroblin Sea. “I just didn’t want to injure you before the walk. You’d better hope I’m not one of the thirty. My staff work has become quite good over the years.”
Zeph patted his cheek in challenge. “You take your best shot. My thread’s not near its end.”
While so many others were sent away to spread the Carc message or gather the next generation of recruits, Baldric had been chosen to stay in the valley. Zeph was surprised to find he held a tinge of envy for his friend, perhaps brought on by the spell of nostalgia he’d fallen under since his return.
Zeph’s attention shifted. “Bremmer Ven, Daymer Lizel!”
The brother-and-sister twins had been Zeph’s favorite trainers back in the day. More than once, they had looked the other way from a Baldric and Zeph infraction. They bowed their heads formally to Zeph in response before continuing without a word.
“They are darseers now,” Baldric said.
“Oh.” Zeph was unable to keep the disappointment from his voice. In his “us against them” mentality, Ven and Lizel had always been part of the “us.” As instructors and darseers, they would now fall in line with the “them.”
Darseer Rolt touched Baldric on the shoulder. “To the triangle.”
“Guess we’ll catch up later,” said Baldric.
“Sure will.” Zeph noted Darseer Rolt’s smug look as he led Baldric to the triangle. The old badger was delighting in this. He probably thought Zeph wouldn’t live to see Baldric or his other friends again.
Zeph was feeling too exhilarated to let that get to him. As a boy, he and his friends would play at walking the Thirty Blades, reenacting what it might have been like in the olden days when harsher attitudes prevailed. He went over the rules in his head.
Blindfolded and pointed in a particular direction, the walker had to pass a marker in order to win the contest. In his way would be thirty foes, each given a single swing, stroke, or thrust at him. The contest ended when the walker could no longer continue or had covered the intended distance. What Zeph always found the most intriguing was that the Thirty Blades had to strike in order of seniority. The youngest Carc had to attack first, and the most senior would go last.
Time to size up his opponents. In the center of the room, Darseer Caspar moved between the candidates gathering about a large triangle on the floor. Inside its borders were intricately drawn symbols of a spool, a moon, and a diamond with curved lines between representing strands of thread. Each of the potential challengers wore the traditional mustard-yellow garb with a lightweight tan cloak made to protect against the sun as much as the valley’s violent gusts. Once Darseer Caspar had selected thirty challengers, the rest headed toward the walls of the assembly room to watch.
“Maybe you’re right about that thread of yours,” said Baldric as he left the triangle to sit down. “Without me out there, you still got a chance—a slim one, but a chance.”
Zeph called after him. “Keep your eyes peeled, Baldric, and you might just learn something.”
Inside the triangle he spotted a freckled girl with short, sandy hair. She would undoubtedly be the first to strike.
“Seven,” Zeph greeted her. There had been a time when Seven had followed him everywhere, picking up his penchant for troublemaking.
“Bremmer Zeph.” She addressed him with the courtesy title denoting a male Carc who was her elder.
He noticed welts on her arms. That area was often used for punishment when a trainee’s back was still tender from previous lashings. She followed his eyes and moved to hide the injuries by crossing her arms.
“Aren’t you a little young for this?” he asked, attempting to lighten the mood.
“I’m fifteen now, Zeph,” she said. “You’re just scared to have me out there.”
“I’m literally trembling.” Zeph held out his hand and shook it.
She grinned. “Not as much as you will be.”
“Perhaps you’re right.” He winked and moved on.
He caught two Carcs he recognized from Clandestine School whispering between themselves. “Gursey, Henig,” he said amicably. He was their senior, even having tutored Gursey once.
“Hey, Zeph,” said Gursey, addressing him informally.
Henig rubbed his hands together. “This is gonna be fun.”
“Like that time you broke three ribs sparring with Darseer Rolt?”
“Mark my words,” said Henig, his lip curling in spite, “you won’t hear me approach, but you’ll sure feel the sting of my dagger.”
“Then I guess it’s a good thing I can track you by your odor,” Zeph said. “Tough luck for your comrades, though.”
Gursey tried unsuccessfully to suppress a mirthful snort. Henig scowled.
“It will be hard to joke when you’re spitting up blood,” he threatened.
Zeph gave him a crooked smile. “Something you learned firsthand, I suspect.”
All conversation died as Darseer Caspar’s voice rang out across the hall. “On my instructions, we will commence the walk. Zeph Greymoon, please step forward.” Zeph complied. “To walk the Path of Thirty Blades, you must start at the tip of this triangle and make it to the end of the great corridor past the tip of its sister triangle. While there is no time limit to the walk, you will be blindfolded and opposed by thirty Carcs. Do you understand all this?”
He nodded, calculating about a hundred feet to his destination—but what a hundred feet it was.
“Good. Would you prefer two short blades or one long?”
“Two short, please.”
Darseer Rolt presented Zeph with practice swords. They were steel, but dull as a ship’s plank, best used for blocking and bludgeoning rather than drawing blood.
“Now for the blindfold,” said Darseer Caspar.
Baldric came toward him with a black band of cloth. He had been chosen as the spotter, to mark the strikes against Zeph and the order in which they were taken.
Two layers were wrapped around his eyes, leaving him in total darkness. A worn hand led him to the starting area.
“The rest of you,” Darseer Caspar continued, “keep within the corridor. You each have exactly one attack, and it must be made in order of seniority. Should you be knocked to the ground before it is your turn, your attack will be forfeited. Does anyone have a question?”
Zeph heard a shuffling of feet as the participants took up new positions. He bent his knees and turned sideways, swords clutched in outstretched hands.
He sprang forward with a flurry of steel, rushing straight ahead until one blade clanged against someone else’s. He spun, striking simultaneously high and low. Impact came with a thud, and someone fell hard to the ground.
“One!” Darseer Caspar called out.
Only Twenty-nine more…
Zeph’s strategy hinged on advancing at a swift enough pace that he left whoever’s turn it was to strike in the dust.
He turned a lunge into a diving roll, sprang to his feet, and swung both weapons across his body. One whooshed; the other caused a cracking sound, steel meeting bone.
An exclamation of pain proceeded a call of “Two.”
His legs churned, his arms in constant motion, swords whipping in and out. Others stepped into his path, slowing his progress and giving his first attacker the opportunity to strike.
“Heeiiaa!” Seven’s cry came from above and behind him. He barely had time to block. Based on the angle of attack, she must have sprung from the shoulders of another. He wasn’t sure if her war call was intended as a show of bravado or a warning, but regardless, it had surely saved him.
“Three,” exclaimed the darseer.
Now that Seven had struck, she was out of the contest—and Zeph knew he would soon follow if he didn’t move quickly. His foes had surrounded him, and the blows came one after another—high, low, left, right, then from the back. Never did any of them strike at the same time or from the same place.
Zeph dodged and parried, instinct taking over. He felt a weapon coming and sprang away. A jab missed him below the armpit. He took solace in knowing each attacker had but a single attempt to stop him.
“Ten,” echoed through the chamber.
Darseer Russo once told him he was better at fighting blindfolded than with the distractions of sight. Before now those words had never been truly tested.
He cleared some space, spinning all the way around, swinging both arms wildly. Then he dove to the side, somersaulted to his feet, and charged in what he hoped was the correct direction.
He lashed out randomly until one sword clanged with another. Using that as a guiding point, he pressed onward, slicing underneath an opponent’s guard and administering a boot to finish the job.
“Eleven,” he said in unison with Darseer Caspar.
He sensed his adversaries moving about the room, weapons poised. The air whooshed. Something heavy—a two-handed mace, if he had to guess—came streaking toward him from above. He pivoted on his heels and crossed his blades to block. A tremor jangled through his body.
He pushed the practice swords forward. Bodies were all about him. He was about to drop low and sweep, a move sure to surprise his opponents, when something sharp—not a weapon, maybe an elbow—caught him below the ribs, knocking the breath from his body. Foul play. He keeled over.
A staff cracked across his back, driving him to the ground. Steel slammed down inches away. He twisted to confront the next attack. His sword was battered from his offhand. A spear point scraped his shoulder.
Gasping for air, he raised his remaining weapon to feel for his next adversary when a kick to the temple sent his world spinning. For a moment, has was back in training, with Darseer Russo screaming, Defensive position! Defensive position!
And then he returned to the moment, instinctively curling into a fetal position, knees to chest. He’d once fended off attacks for a thousand-count like this. Without thinking, he blocked a stroke arcing downward from the right. The number seventeen rang out above the din.
On his back he used his heels to spin, changing directions to meet his opponents. A chop from above, a thrusting polearm, a slashing blade—all turned away. Another blow ricocheted off his weapon and tore into his forearm. He shot both his legs out, hooking someone’s ankle and sending him to the ground with a satisfying crunch.
No time to celebrate. Rest was a fleeting desire. His focus lie solely on Darseer Russo’s commandments: block, dodge, attack, survive.
A forceful chop sent his own blade into his chest, grating painfully against muscle and bone. He flopped to one side to avoid the thrust of a staff, then drove his legs into someone who had crept too close. Steel sliced in, parried, and deflected to his waist, where it cut a finger-sized groove.
Zeph was panting, his body sweating and tense, waiting for the next attack.
He could hear past adversaries moving to the side of the room to sit down, their opportunity spent. He strained his ears. The hollow echo of his own labored breaths came back.
Only four left. The twins, Lizel and Ven, would be last to strike. That meant Gursey and Henig were next. Being from Clandestine School, silent movement was part of their repertoire.
You won’t hear me approach, but you’ll sure feel the sting of my dagger, Henig had promised.
If only he could smell Henig sneaking up on him.
Zeph lay on his back, still as a corpse, head throbbing, side aching, feeling the sting of every wound—and allowing the enemy to choose the time and angle from which to strike. He reprimanded himself; it did not have to be this way.
He used one foot to spin his body faster and faster, like a turtle in its shell, as he shifted his blade in random directions. At least now whoever was coming would have difficulty pinpointing his attack.
An ever-so-slight rustling caused Zeph to shove his blade upwards to block. The sound of steel on steel masked what came next: a dagger plunged between his ribs. The pain was excruciating. Sheer luck—and perhaps the fact that he’d kept moving—had prevented it from puncturing anything vital.
A hand to the wound came away wet with blood. He dismissed his instinct to pull the dagger free. Even if he could manage it without losing consciousness, he would soon bleed out. Letting himself slow to a stop, he laid his head back on the stone. He hurt all over. If another attack came, let it be through the heart. Then at least he wouldn’t have to bear Henig’s gloating.
He tried to calm his rasping breaths, listening intently for approaching feet. At least the twins were not from Clandestine School.
“Over here,” called Lizel.
She wanted to draw him in. Bleeding like he was, he was in no position to play the waiting game. He pulled himself to his knees, head swimming with pain that erupted from more areas than he could count. Once he was sure he wouldn’t pass out, he regained his feet.
“I am by the point of the triangle,” Lizel announced.
It was a trap of some sort, but he had no choice but to walk into it. He felt around with his foot until he found his lost sword. As he bent to pick it up, he felt the stab of the dagger inside him all over again.
“Make it past me and you’re done.”
She was toying with him. He shuffled toward her voice, mindful of an ambush along the way. One thing was certain: Ven was keeping silent to disguise his whereabouts, the crux of their ruse.
He was getting close. His side burned as if brimstone were wedged inside, and blood dripped down like the hot wax of a candle. It was better this way. The moment an injury turned numb, the mind would surely follow.
He stopped to listen. The spectators were whispering among themselves. They knew something he did not. He sensed an excitement to it. It was the same feeling he got on a job, sneaking along in pitch blackness as his other senses took over. He heard every breath, every footfall. The smell of sweat was strong in the air; he tasted its saltiness. He felt the pain of his wounds acutely and shivered against the draft that roamed the Adalhelm like the spirits of the dead.
But his mind kept pressing, a sixth sense sharper than normal, delving for clues. The question had to do with seniority. The difference in age between the twins must be some infinitesimal number of minutes. It didn’t matter, not really—except right now. Seniority would determine who struck first.
He seemed to remember Lizel calling her brother Bremmer Ven during ceremonies, denoting respect for her elder. This would mean Lizel would attack first from the front, leaving Ven to follow from behind. It would be tricky to block them both, but at least he knew now what to expect.
Unless he was mistaken and Lizel was the eldest. Then the initial strike would be from behind, and he would be as good as dead.
He spun about, slicing his swords through the air in desperation. Nothing. No Ven, just an excruciatingly painful reminder that he shouldn’t be making any sudden movements. Turning back around, he held his swords out.
“You’re so close,” said Lizel.
He tread cautiously. Is that a footstep behind me? He would have sworn it so. Trapped between the twins, he had no recourse but to make a choice. If he had to go one way or the other, why not toward victory? He thrust forward with a barrage of attacks, determined to force Lizel into a counterstrike. If he was right, Ven would follow with an attack of his own.
A thought occurred to Zeph in mid-feint: now that Lizel and Ven were darseers, they no longer addressed their elders as Daymer or Bremmer. Why would they? All darseers were considered equal, even Darseer Caspar, who was treated with reverence out of respect for everything he had done for their people, not because he had been doling out wisdom before most of the others were born.
But then if there was no seniority, Ven and Lizel could attack at the same moment.
Zeph sensed movement from the rear. As he turned toward it, some deep, restless voice spoke to him. His opponents were twins, brought up with the same education with all the same influences. What was the chance they would come at him in a similar fashion? And if their intent was to finish him in this single opportunity, what move would they make?
A memory flashed of Bremmer Ven cutting a swath of air with his curved sword as he lectured Zeph’s class about kill shots. The neck, the eyes, the gut, and the temple.
Zeph dropped to the ground.
From both directions, he heard a whoosh, then a loud clang above him as Lizel and Ven’s blades met.
They had both aimed high.
“Thirty!” Darseer Caspar cried.
He had done it. He had survived the walk. Now if he could manage to stand, all would be well.
He rose carefully, gritting his teeth. That last maneuver had driven the dagger in deeper. But thankfully, it was over, or it would be once he crossed the triangle. Then his wounds would be treated, and he could return to Etta’s. He hoped Cahrin was awake and on the road to recovery. She’d looked so pale—
“Behind you!” yelled Seven from across the room.
Zeph dove forward as something poked at his back. He tucked his head and rolled away from his attacker. If he hadn’t been injured, he would have sprung to his feet to face his adversary. Instead, he twisted around and came to a sitting position, blades defensively held in front of him, waiting.
“Remove the blindfold,” said Darseer Caspar from the other side of the corridor. “The Path of Thirty Blades is complete.”
He must have crossed the triangle while evading the last attack. It was really over.
He tore off the cloth covering his eyes, more angry than exhilarated. He could barely wait to discover the culprit of the treacherous thirty-first strike. In front of him, glowering, stood Darseer Rolt. Of course it was. His old teacher was at it again, turning every situation into a lesson, regardless of the consequences. “Expect the unexpected, eh, Darseer Rolt?”
“That’s right, the first rule of Clandestine School—one I see you have yet to learn. If your apprentice troublemaker hadn’t warned you, you’d be dead.” He shot a dark look at Seven.
“No, Darseer, I wouldn’t,” said Zeph, more defiantly than he had ever spoken to Darseer Rolt before. While he appreciated Seven’s devotion, if the girl hadn’t called out then, something else would have happened: an inopportune stumble, a non-mortal wound, or some other fateful occurrence that would have left Zeph alive.
“It’s like Darseer Caspar said,” he continued. “My thread does not end here, and there’s nothing you can do to change that.”
He expected the usual tart retort. Instead, the darseer stared at him thoughtfully as if trying to determine whether this was another rebellious swipe at authority or if Zeph meant his words. Finally, he said, “The wisdom of Darseer Caspar leaves little to argue with. Come, Seven.”
Seven grudgingly followed. More lashes—or worse—appeared to be in store.
Zeph struggled to rise from tiles slick with blood. He noted looks of concern on the faces of those around him.
“And Zeph,” Darseer Rolt’s voice called, sounding far away. “As visitors to our valley, your friends too should learn the first rule.”
Hands held Zeph steady as the implications of what had just been said hit home. It was more than a statement. It was a threat, a lesson to be taught to Daen and Cahrin the hard way—and from Darseer Rolt, that meant the prospect of death. Zeph shook his helpers free and fell backward onto his behind. He felt weak.
“The knife needs to be removed,” he heard through a haze of frantic thoughts.
Cahrin can’t even defend herself.
“Hold him down.”
He tried to pull himself up, but a weight pressed him to the tiled floor.
Would it be poison or a blade in the night?
“On the count of three.”
He watched Darseer Rolt, wearing a sardonic smile, lead Seven away.
I need to warn them.
The pain was tremendous. He felt himself slipping from consciousness.
Before it’s too late.
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.
Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings -- cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.
Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings' laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha'ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings' mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings' power...if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don't find her first.
Will Spero grew up in a world of Dungeons and Dragons, David Eddings and The Princess Bride. A time when heroes were meant to be, well, heroic, and villains had the blackest of hearts. These early indulgences to his imagination might explain why he made a career out of embellishing the ordinary (a.k.a. “marketing”). Will enjoys spending time with his wife and three kids as well as a lap-sitting terrier. When he is not conquering the world of the mundane, he writes fantastical stories for any who wishes to read along.