Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 17: The Past, the Present, and Azren
The Past, the Present, and Azren It had bee...
Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 17: The Past, the Present, and Azren
The Past, the Present, and Azren It had bee...
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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 16: Cavern of the Undead
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“Sel,” Copius admonished.
“It’s one thing to rescue him from Kynar,” said Selgrin, “but I’m not sleeping anywhere near him.”
Less than ten strides away sat Raven, seemingly oblivious to their conversation.
Lady Abigail put her hands on her hips. “You want to go back to the road and look for another location?”
“It’s him or us.”
“And he was here first.”
Selgrin plopped down next to his gear in resignation. “I said it before and I’ll say it again: this is the last thing we need.”
But Copius was not so sure. He’d begun to see Raven as a project, someone so far from The One that he lived in total darkness. Yet if I could bring in a single shaft of light, might that be enough of a start?
He approached Raven. “Would you mind terribly if we shared this campsite?”
There was no movement or any indication that his request had been heard until what sounded like distant thunder escape Raven’s hood. “Do as you wish.”
“Thank you.” Copius set about starting a small campfire, knowing its light would be hidden inside the protective barrier of trees and its smoke invisible against the inky-black sky.
Lady Abigail called first watch, to his dismay. “You mustn’t,” he said. “A lady of distinction does not draw night watch.”
“To think, my father always told me a lady of distinction does whatever she wants.”
“I say let her have it,” Sel said. “Unless you want us falling off our horses tomorrow in fatigue.”
Copius couldn’t help but notice Sel’s angular dogar face sagged with sleep deprivation. “Maybe Raven could take a turn.”
“And maybe we’ll all end up with our throats slit.” Selgrin folded his arms as he often did when he wasn’t going to discuss something further.
“That’s quite enough.” Lady Abigail glanced over at Raven, who was within earshot. “As told in the Book of Ilias, my noble monk, what one gives in the material world is reaped in the afterlife. Let me give you two some sleep.”
A lady serving night watch did not sit right with Copius, but she had a point. “Well, okay. But I have second watch.”
She tapped him awake several hours later, and he settled into a position by the fire. Raven was exactly as he’d seen him last, cross-legged, his cowl pulled down, looking as if he was in meditation. They kept running into him. Could there be more at work here than coincidence? Perhaps it was a sign from The One that here was someone in need of spiritual guidance.
It would not be easy, but Copius had to start somewhere. For which his father had a saying: “There’s a reason conversation is only two letters off from conversion.” Nobody turned people to The One like his father.
He began hesitantly. “I-I noticed you are quite the swordsman.”
Raven continued his silent staring, as if he were having another experience far removed from this clearing.
Copius waited before making a second attempt, this time using a more subtle approach. “I once knew a boy who would come to my father’s monastery. He’d just show up—sometimes with bruises on his face. The boy would stay for a day or two and then leave. He never said much, and my father and I did not want to pry. We only wanted to be there when he needed it. Then for some reason, he stopped coming around. I always felt terrible that we didn’t do more. That we didn’t learn about the boy’s problems and try to help him.”
Again no response; even Raven’s breathing was muted. For a time, all the monk heard was the chorus of thousands of insects competing for his attention. He’d decided his words had gone unheard when Raven finally spoke.
“One of the earliest things I remember was a farm.” His deep, hollow voice sounded haunting in the darkness. “I came upon it with fresh wounds all over my body. The owner of the farm found me collapsed in his fields. He did not have much: a wife and child, two plow horses, some chickens, and a goat for milk. It was a good goat—the farmer, he seemed to like it the best of them.” Copius heard something in the tone, underneath the unemotional guise. “The family took me in and fed me, tended my wounds, and gave me shelter while I recovered. Then early one morning before any of them awoke, I went to the barn and picked up the goat, got up on a plow horse, and left.”
After a time, Copius realized that was all Raven meant to say. “Didn’t you even want to thank them?” Maybe that was what he heard behind Raven’s words—regret.
“Ever been scorned or ridiculed? Being pitied is not so different.”
Copius wanted to tell Raven he had endured ridicule his entire life. At first, it had been the normal childish name-calling. They would refer to him as C-C-Copius because of his stammer. But as he rose quickly through the ranks of the Order, his fellow monks couldn’t contain their disdain for him. There he was—this kid, this clumsy, awkward kid, who in their eyes was not dignified enough or coordinated enough to wear the robes. Turned out they were right all along. No matter how hard Copius tried, he could never live up to his grandfather’s legacy. Rather, it seemed almost certain he would be remembered in infamy.
Copius said none of this to Raven. He could not. “What happened to the goat?”
“It was a good goat,” Raven repeated. “It provided me sustenance for the next several days.”
Nothing more passed between them.
When Raven woke it was with a start and a silent scream on his lips. He touched his scarred cheek, certain it would be wet with blood. It was damp with sweat. He pulled back his hood to allow the brisk air to dry his face. The dream had been so vivid, he could have sworn a knife had dug into him moments ago. He trembled at the thought.
It was times like these that he contemplated if he had the resolve to accomplish the task at hand for even the tiniest chink in his fortitude would lead to certain death. But if not me, then who will take on Azren? He banished such thoughts. There was no one else.
He turned toward the others, two asleep and the dogar at watch. He had seen how they looked at him, how they all looked at him, with either fear, hate, or pity. What little they knew. Those who held him in fear could not truly know fear without having spent a night in Azren’s care. The ones with hate in their hearts simply did not understand his plight. Everything he did was for Draza, them included.
But it was the many who gazed upon him with pity whom he found the sorriest of the lot. If any should be pitied, it was them. They were pawns in this war with Azren, pieces to be moved around or cast off the board in anger.
Despite this, Raven did not despise those he camped with. He had been through almost two days of flight, torture, and travel. While Copius and the others would never provide companionship, at least they afforded him protection. And so he allowed himself to drift off, knowing a margin of terror-stricken sleep was better than none.
Selgrin saw a half dozen torchlights from the border of trees—travelers making haste or Kynar’s Heavies, he was not sure. Whoever they were, they moved on, and Selgrin continued his watch until dawn when he woke the others. Raven had already packed his gear and was leaving their camp like the last of the night.
“Where do you suppose he’s going?” asked Copius.
Selgrin didn’t know or care. If the dogar god, Dronilowyn, was willing, they’d never see him again.
But that wasn’t the case. Raven started out a dark blotch ahead of them on the Thulon Road, and at every split he took the same path they were about to choose. They gained on him over time until he was close enough to appear to be part of their group.
“Raven,” Copius called out as if he were hailing a friend. When no response seemed forthcoming, he yelled louder. “Raven!”
The dark mage turned back and stared.
Selgrin could not see his face behind the cowl, but the scorn was palpable. “What are you doing?”
“I was trying to find out where he’s traveling to.”
“Don’t. He’s just as likely to stab you through the heart as answer you.” He meant it. Raven was an enigma—selfish, brooding, disturbed. Definitely more trouble than help. Yet they could not seem to shake his company.
“Why does he hate everyone so?” asked Copius after some time had passed.
“I don’t know, Cope. It could have to do with his face having been used as a carving board.”
“That doesn’t give him the right to treat others poorly.”
“No, I don’t suppose it does.”
“Maybe he’s been alone so long he’s not sure how to act any better.”
Selgrin shrugged. People were always making excuses for their behavior. “Or maybe he’s just a bad apple.”
Copius trotted his horse up beside Raven’s. “Where are you heading?”
“I have business with Lord Berrian.”
Figures. “You needn’t travel with us, you know,” called Selgrin.
Copius looked appalled by his inhospitable statement. “He d-d-didn’t mean that. We would b-be honored should you join our company.”
“Truly,” said Lady Abigail who had come up on Raven’s other side. “There’s no sense in traveling separately to the same destination.”
Selgrin couldn’t believe his ears. The last time they had traveled with this man, he had abandoned and betrayed them the first chance he got.
“Very well,” Raven said evenly, as if he couldn’t care less either way.
Before Selgrin could mount a protest, he heard the familiar sound of wheels scraping road: a caravan coming in their direction.
“Off the road,” he ordered, guiding his horse toward a cluster of juniper trees.
They huddled among bristling green branches as the lead wagon came into view. The markings on its broad side read PIKE: Peger Ivendra Kers Eboron. Selgrin knew of them; they were one of the largest of the trade consortiums. Their name came from the language of the Old World, a distant land once home to the humans.
The caravan halted, and its driver called out and pointed into the distance. Closing in from the direction Selgrin and the others had come was a bluish shape, bringing with it the unmistakable thunder of a galloping horse.
Selgrin pushed his mount further back into the foliage. While the thinly leafed branches did not provide ideal cover, they allowed for a view of what was about to transpire. He just hoped no one paid any particular attention to the trees.
The blue shape fast became larger until it was clearly a Council Honor Guard. The horseman halted in front of the caravan and told a sentry he had an urgent message for Master Rives. Selgrin could see foam lathered the horse’s haunches, and when the man dismounted and pulled off his helm, his thick brown hair was slick with sweat.
Four men approached the Heavy. Three were guards with glistening chain armor and sheathed swords at their belts. The fourth was meticulously groomed with short, silvery strands of hair. He wore an embroidered doublet with blue silk leggings—a wealthy merchant of some sort.
“What word has Kynar brought me?” he asked.
Sel’s skin prickled at the mention of the name.
“He sent this for you, Master Rives.” Selgrin heard a noticeable quaver in the man’s voice, either from fear or plain exhaustion. A finely gloved hand snaked out and snatched a parchment from the Honor Guard’s outstretched gauntlet.
“I see,” said the merchant after several long moments of reading. The parchment was crumpled by the fine glove and dropped unceremoniously to the ground. “Tell the Council Head that he is incompetent. Ample coin was given, and unless he plans to return the coin, he should make good on his promise.”
“He has a legion of Honor Guards and the backing of the entire Alliance. Even a fool could accomplish the task.”
“I’m glad you understand me. Now if only I could get that idiot Kynar to do the same.” Rives turned away, indicating a possible end to the uncomfortable conversation. The guard stepped up into the stirrup, ready to depart, when Rives snapped back around.
Selgrin shuddered at the way he said it, less threat than mirthful supposition. Like a prairie cat playing with its food. The guard returned to his former position.
“No, sir—I mean, did you have a message you wish for me to deliver to the Council Head?” His face and hair looked even wetter than when he had arrived.
“As a matter a fact, I do.” Rives’s voice was icy cold. “But first, I would like you to grovel for your master.”
“I said grovel on behalf of your lazy master, and pray that I don’t demand my coin back and take the lives of half the Council for my troubles.”
The guard dropped to one knee and bowed.
“I, Thigamus Fayn, am truly sorry for this mishap. I am sure the Council Head will make amends and follow through for the services paid for—sir.”
“Is that all you’ve got?” said Rives. “They certainly don’t give you a well-rounded education. Every good warrior should know the virtuous art of begging, especially when lives may be depending on it.”
“As you say, sir.”
“Let me ask you one final question, Thigamus.”
Thigamus glanced up apprehensively.
“Would you do anything for your master?”
“It is what we are trained for.”
“Even give your life?”
He nodded once.
“Good.” Rives held out a gloved hand. “Give me your sword—hilt first.”
Selgrin kept a staying hand on Copius, who looked as if at any moment he would leap out of hiding to defend the Heavy. It was only after a compassionate look from Lady Abigail that Copius remembered his obligations.
Thigamus hesitated in the slightest before unsheathing his sword and handing it hilt first to Rives. The merchant twirled the weapon then swung it full force, inches above the poor guard’s head.
“Nice balance,” he commented. “It looks like your master can do some things right.”
Rives swept the sword downward, narrowly missing a shoulder. Even from this distance, Selgrin could see Thigamus’s tortured expression.
“And now for my message,” said Rives. The sword flashed down and up, slashing in and then out. It was a fine bit of work, and the outcome was the upper half of an ear sliced cleanly off, lying symbolically on the ground. Thigamus flinched and clapped a gauntleted hand over his ear. Red blood leaked through his metal fingers. Rives dropped the sword, spun on his heels, and walked away, his entourage of bodyguards following him.
“Give your master the ear,” he called over his shoulder. “Perhaps it will help him hear my wishes.” He tittered at his own joke.
Selgrin found it painful to watch the Honor Guard gather his ear in a sack, mount up, and turn back toward Korinth. The caravan began moving again more slowly in the same direction. When the road had cleared, he strode over to where Rives had tossed the crumpled message.
“What does it say?” asked Copius as he helped Lady Abigail onto her horse.
Selgrin didn’t know what to make of it. “‘The Gems of Tazanjia have not been recovered. More time is needed.’”
“The Gems of Tazanjia?”
“That’s what it says.”
“I didn’t know they really existed.”
Selgrin tucked the paper into his pocket. “Well, either they do exist, or these merchant consortiums are a whole lot dumber than I thought.”
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.