Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 21: Transformation
Transformation Sel might have made straight...
Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 21: Transformation
Transformation Sel might have made straight...
Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 20: A Secret Meeting
A Secret Meeting Selgrin wandered the nearb...
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At least I’m not dead was Selgrin’s first thought. The pounding of his head and the constant jostling made him wonder if it was indeed a blessing.
He opened one eye. The first thing he saw was his own arm ending in a stump. Not surprising, he was back to being himself.
Selgrin forced his other eye open. The entire scene became clear now. He was staring at the ground, which was moving swiftly beneath him. Giant-sized boots kept coming in and out of view. It did not take him long to realize he was traveling through the passageways of the Undercity, hung over Byrtle’s shoulder. Looking to his right, he saw that one of Kynar’s guards was hanging over the other shoulder, and Lady Abigail was walking next to them.
“I’m awake,” he said.
Byrtle grunted in response. Even with the big man’s strength, Sel imagined it took some effort to carry two grown men in armor.
“You could put me down, you know,” he added. Why were they treating him like some invalid?
Byrtle swung Sel to his feet and adjusted his other load, which appeared dead or unconscious. Sel’s head spun, and Lady Abigail steadied him.
“Keep it going.” He motioned forward. “Not sure why we’re standing around while my friend is rotting in a prison.”
“You’re nearly as grumpy as Kynar,” Lady Abigail said with a wry smile.
“Is that so?” he asked. “Guess I’m not used to being dangled from a shoulder like a sack of potatoes.” Noticing Byrtle’s hurt expression, he added, “Though it did save me from having to walk.”
After a few unsteady steps, he got his legs back, though the spasm that ran down his spine was excruciating. He had to grind his teeth to keep from cursing in pain. Kynar was going to pay for that piece of enduring torture.
Without sewage running through the corridor, the normally putrid smell of the passageway was actually tolerable. That didn’t last long. They met with an intersection, and the sewage returned. Soon, the prison appeared.
Ralscap stood outside with an approving expression. “Byrtle—good job, I say.” He patted Byrtle’s ample arm affectionately.
“Thank you, sir.” Byrtle looked more guilty than proud of himself. “The other one—”
Ralscap held up a staying hand. “No worries. This lady here will be worth ten times that dark fellow. And besides, I would have let him go anyway.” Ralscap opened the prison door. “Come out, monk of the Auburn Order. You are free to leave.”
Sel eyed him skeptically.
“As Byrtle will tell you, I am a man of my word,” said Ralscap. “You are no longer my prisoners. Stay and become citizens, or risk the dangers of the city above. Either way, I won’t interfere.”
Copius exited the cell looking as if he were just leaving his favorite tavern—wobbly but in high spirits. Ralscap cut his bonds and handed him back his staff while Byrtle squeezed in behind them to drop off the armored guard he was carrying.
Copius glanced from Selgrin to Lady Abigail. “M-my lady,” he said, bowing reverently. “I only wish that I’d been allowed to l-lend a hand in your rescue.”
“Please,” she said, “it is a great honor to be in the presence of a monk in the Order of The One.” She pulled a silver medallion from beneath her clothing. Its design matched the clasp on Copius’s cloak: three circles, one inside another, inside another—the symbol of The One.
“The honor is mine,” Copius said, blushing. “It’s rare to meet a fellow worshipper.”
“Not so rare as it once was. The word of The One has been spreading throughout Draza, as has the deeds of his monks.”
Copius beamed. “They say lies travel fast, but the truth travels powerfully.”
Selgrin leaned closer to Ralscap. “What happens to her?” He was grateful the magistrate was freeing them, but he wasn’t ready to turn his back on Lady Abigail. Promises had been made, and Selgrin intended to make sure they were kept. “Are you just going to stick her in the same cell we were freed from?”
Lady Abigail caught the comment and blanched, but it was Copius who appeared most horrified.
“You must think me a bandit lord, my dear dogar,” said Ralscap. “The lady will be my personal guest until her father pays the ransom. Only the best food and bedding. She may even be sad when it comes time for her to go.”
“And if her father doesn’t pay?”
“The ways of the world are not so complex. What value would his daughter have in marriage if she is not worth a ransom?”
Selgrin was satisfied. Ralscap had kept his word before. No reason to think that he wouldn’t do so again. “I guess we’re done.”
He turned to Lady Abigail. “Make sure you tell your father that a dogar helped rescue you.” He fixed Byrtle with a sincere look. “Another time, big fella.”
Byrtle gave a friendly nod. Under other circumstances, Selgrin might have stuck around a little longer.
Copius shifted uneasily from sandal to sandal. “Sel, shouldn’t we at least—”
“Not now, Cope. It’s time we leave them to their own devices.” Selgrin put a hand on Copius’s elbow to lead him away, but the monk shook it off.
“Where exactly are we going to go? I don’t think I’m meant to stay here in the Undercity—no offense.” He looked apologetically toward Ralscap. “The teachings of The One must be spread to all parts of Draza. And we certainly can’t return to the city, with Kynar and his men searching for us.”
“There’s no sense in talking about it here,” said Selgrin. He didn’t feel like testing their captor’s generosity.
As he expected, Ralscap was losing patience with the conversation. “I am sure a monk of your position and a talented dogar will be more than able to find their way. Now, I have matters to attend to. Luck be with you both.”
But Copius wouldn’t let it go. “Couldn’t you, magistrate, sir—I mean, if it’s not too much trouble . . .”
Ralscap’s shoulders slumped, and he pivoted back toward them. “Yes?”
“If it’s all the same to you, we would rather go aboveground but outside the city,” Copius said. “If you wouldn’t mind lending us some men to open up the back entrance.”
The question was posed casually, but Selgrin saw danger in Ralscap’s eyes.
“You know,” said Copius, scratching at the ground with his staff, “the area where you send out the carts of silver, I presume.”
“I’m afraid you are among a select few outside my inner circle who has knowledge of ‘the back entrance,’ as you so call it. This is information I would not want Kynar to get hold of.”
Selgrin figured it would be a good time to intercede. “You needn’t have to tell us. We’re not some naïve yokels.” He couldn’t help but think of Yarlow and Deek.
“Still, should you be captured, Kynar has ways of making men talk.”
“Not a messenger of The One.” Copius sounded profoundly offended. “My people are trained to hold up against whatever force is used. And nobody is going to catch Sel—he’d just turn into something they wouldn’t expect.”
“Good to know,” replied Ralscap. “But there’s no use taking chances is what I always say. Don’t I, Byrtle?”
“Yes, sir,” Byrtle agreed.
“Well then, rather than risk you two getting captured by Kynar in the city, I may as well have Byrtle here and some of my men escort you to the back entrance.”
Selgrin knew it was too late to tell him they would be fine on their own.
“That’s very kind of you,” replied Copius. “May The One take notice of your deeds.”
“And yours as well, my good monk. Go now. There’s no use delaying your return to freedom. And Byrtle,” he said, with an edge to his voice, “make sure you show our two friends the lake. The water is especially clear this time of year.”
Ralscap finished with a smile that was all too false. Lady Abigail’s features darkened.
“Don’t you fret about us,” Copius told her, but he had lost his grateful demeanor. “Sel and I can handle ourselves. Once we’re free of the Undercity, we’ll find your father and explain all this.”
Selgrin shook his head. Had Copius only listened, they would be well on their way. Instead, their safe departure had become a death march. As if reading his thoughts, Byrtle gave him a somber look. In a short time they had learned much about each other, and even owed each other their lives.
“Don’t worry about it, big guy.” His voice echoed in the cramped corridors. “Orders are orders.”
Byrtle gathered a few men along the way, leading them through the main square, the reverse of the route they had taken earlier. It was a long walk to the so-called back entrance, and Selgrin felt as if he were making it wearing steel greaves. Outside of a brief bout of unconsciousness, he had been awake since sunup when Honor Guards Yori and Paht had woken him. Between two rescue attempts, having his limbs nearly pulled off by an angry mob, and an awful lot of running for his life, it had been a bone-wearying day. At least it took the edge off the fact he would be dead soon.
Copius was humming nervously. “Anyone have something to eat?” A gentle growling of his tummy followed his words. The proverbial last meal, thought Selgrin. He could see the worry in the monk’s eyes and forgave him. Copius hadn’t been around the real world long enough to know what people were capable of in order to hide their secrets. He was sure getting a fast lesson.
A more pronounced rumbling sounded.
“What’s that?” called one of the guards.
Copius covered his stomach with both hands, looking embarrassed.
“It’s coming from up ahead,” said another guard.
“Oh.” Copius grinned sheepishly, giving his tummy a gentle patting of forgiveness.
The rumble gave way to a scraping sound, followed by the unmistakable clank of armor.
“The Undercity is under attack,” said Byrtle, making an about-face. “We need to warn Master Ralscap.”
A part of Selgrin cursed his luck. He knew he should have been relieved that his execution was at least postponed, but his body was spent, his thoughts a foggy morass. The idea of “seeing the lake” did not sound like such a bad alternative to taking the long trek back to the main square. Worse yet, the guards and Copius had started to run. Go figure. Selgrin lifted his heavy legs and willed them to obey.
They arrived at the main square as daylight was beginning to trickle in from above. Dawn had reared its head, and merchants were setting up their stalls for the coming day. Byrtle led them to a large residence where a sweeper kept busy in front.
“Master Ralscap!” he shouted several times before a voice responded to the call. It was a short wait before the magistrate came out in disheveled clothes. Once the situation was explained, Ralscap called for the guard and went with them to the edge of the square. They would hold the enemy at the mouth of the narrow passageway.
Lady Abigail poked her head out a nearby window in the residence. “Preparing for battle?”
Selgrin nodded. “Armored men approaching. Let’s get you out of here before anyone notices.”
“You have a third prison in mind? I was just beginning to like this one.”
“I made a promise you’d return home. Don’t make me drag you there.”
She glanced across the square to where Ralscap was shouting orders as he directed the placement of a giant ballista. “Okay, I’ll come. But my father will not like that I have trusted a dogar on two occasions.”
Sadly, Selgrin could think of few humans who would.
They left the square on the opposite side from Ralscap, following the main avenue to the passageway where they had originally been chased by Undercity guards. Selgrin followed the flowing sewage past the withering stench—carrying Lady Abigail along this stretch after she fainted—and through the narrow corridor they had uncovered leading to the back entrance.
This time, it stood open. By the sound of the echoes behind them, an attack on the Undercity was well underway.
Selgrin led them up the ramp into the fresh air and light above. All he could think about was how soft and inviting the surrounding grass looked in the morning light. The land was dry and stark where he had grown up, in Feralintero on the edge of No Man’s Land. One of the first things that caught his eye during his travels south was supple, green grass off the side of the road—perfect for a midday nap.
Stretching his arms up into the air, something he could rarely have done in the Undercity without knocking his knuckles, he let out an elongated yawn.
“Hey, the lake Byrtle was going to show us,” announced Copius to Abigail. The crystal-clear water sprouted tufts of reeds and white petal flowers. “It really is nice.”
Selgrin snorted. He didn’t see the point of continuing the charade.
At the lake’s edge, a dozen armored horses were enjoying the foliage. By the color of their caparisons, they belonged to the Council Honor Guard. Lady Abigail must be something special if Kynar would storm the Undercity with Heavies to retrieve her.
“By the mercy of The One,” said Lady Abigail, her gaze directed at a great oak about thirty paces from their position. Tied with his back flat against its trunk, head hung downward, was a man draped in black from head to toe—Raven.
Copius rushed to his side. Unmoving and slumped forward against his bindings, he could have been dead. Copius lifted his chin to check for signs of life.
“Don’t touch me.” The sound of the words was chilling, and Copius jerked backwards. Selgrin had no doubt that if Raven had had a hand free, it would be clutching Copius’s throat.
“Leave him be,” said Selgrin.
“We can’t just abandon him,” Copius protested.
“And why not?” Selgrin folded his arms in challenge. “You’ve wanted us to go our separate ways since the crash.”
“It’s different now. The One teaches us to help those in need.”
“Like he helped Kynar find this secret entrance?”
Lady Abigail raised an eyebrow. “You would leave him behind, tied to a tree?”
“The man’s a traitor. He gets what he deserves.”
“I see—a traitor because he betrayed a man who imprisoned and used him?”
Selgrin cursed inwardly. She had a point. In the same circumstances, he might have been the traitor.
“Fine,” he conceded. “Free him, for all I care.”
Copius pulled a dagger from his pack and cut the ropes securing Raven. He was given no thanks, not even a silent nod. Raven strode over to the horses. Selecting a midnight-black steed that looked larger and more athletic than the rest, he mounted up and started away.
Sel shook his head in disdain. Already he was having regrets.
The remaining mounts shuffled nervously, despite how carefully Sel approached. Horses were always skittish about him, as if they were afraid he would change into a hippopotamus in mid-gallop. It had taken ages for him to learn to ride, and he still felt like his steed would rear up at a moment’s notice, causing him to fall and break his neck.
Noticing his apprehension, Lady Abigail took the initiative and released three tethered horses, one for each of them. By the time they were ready to leave, Raven had ridden out of sight.
If Copius hadn’t been so worried about being hunted by Kynar and his Heavies, he might have relished the smell of the lavender fields off the side of the Thulon Road or the gentle breeze against his bald head. As it was, they raced northward with nothing but escape on their minds.
It was midafternoon when they slowed their pace to give the horses a rest and take turns sleeping in their saddles. Even during this reprieve, Copius couldn’t help glancing over his shoulder.
“They call this road the Shape-shifter’s Artery,” said Selgrin against the sound of clopping hooves. “Back in the day, back before the dogar chose the wrong side in the Great War, this road used to be lined with caravans all the way to Feralintero.”
Copius gave a nervous nod to a traveler and his grain-carrying mule. “Aren’t we a little out in the open?” he asked once the traveler had passed. “I mean, if Kynar starts questioning people, he’ll find out where we’ve been.”
“We have Lady Abigail. I imagine Kynar has already guessed where we’re taking her. This road is the fastest route there, and if we’re lucky, her father will offer us his protection. Of course we can’t hide out forever, but we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.”
Fugitives on the run. Copius shook his head in dismay. He’d made a mockery of himself in front of the Acolytes of The One once before. When they learned he was wanted for treason, they’d likely strip him of his robes. And then what would I do?
He spurred his mount up next to Selgrin’s. “Do you think we should have just let ourselves be taken by the Council in the first place—I mean, instead of trying to escape?”
Selgrin snorted. “What makes you say that?”
“Well, sure, it might have been inconvenient, but in the end the Council would’ve learned the truth. At least then we would’ve been cleared of any wrongdoing.”
“I wouldn’t be so certain.”
“It’s not like I committed treason—and you didn’t either, right Sel?”
“Course not. But things don’t always turn out as they should.” His mount whinnied underneath him uneasily.
“Not always. But The One would have seen us through it, I know it. Maybe it’s not too late to give ourselves up.”
“Attacking the Honor Guard, impersonating the head of the Council, abducting a guest of Kynar himself—I think that time has passed.”
Sel had a point. It was little more than wishful thinking. “I suppose you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right. And don’t look so glum about it. It’s for the better. Mark my words.”
“‘The path to The One is not chosen but endured,’” recited Copius from a well-known passage from the Book of Ilias.
“There, you see? Whoever wrote that knew a thing or two.”
Copius kept to himself after that, more in the mood to stew than talk. They continued riding with small breaks until it was nearly dark. Selgrin led them to a copse of trees which, despite his assurances, looked too dense a location to make camp.
“Will we run into others here?” asked Lady Abigail, ducking her head under bowed branches.
“Hard to figure,” answered Selgrin. “I sure hope not. The last thing we need is a bunch of nosy travelers asking questions.”
They passed between two sets of thickly clustered trees, and true to Selgrin’s word, a clearing appeared—only it wasn’t so clear.
Selgrin swung his gear down with a grunt. “On second thought, this is the last thing we need.”
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.