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...
5 Books to Read if You Loved Watching ‘American Gods’
Mythology is a rich place to draw on as a writer o...
It was the midday when the summons finally came. Had it not, Raven had been prepared to take matters into his own hands.
He crossed the room past the desk and the uneaten slice of honey bread the monk had brought him the prior evening. He scoffed at being treated like a stray dog. Next time, he would feign sleep rather than listen to the monk’s sanctimonious drivel.
His escort led him directly to the lord’s audience chamber. Lord Berrian sat on an enormous gilded throne inlaid with intricate patterns and the occasional gem. So wide was its seat it could have comfortably held Lord Berrian, his most trusted advisor, and the head of Azren in between. Flanking the lord at arm’s length were two heavily armored guards.
A well-guarded pawn is still a pawn. It amused Raven how the lord made such a point of his wealth and his armored muscle, as if any of it could keep him safe.
He approached, stopping only when Lord Berrian brought up a hand and then without any show of fealty. About two body lengths separated him from the throne.
“Pull back your hood so nothing is hidden between us,” commanded Lord Berrian. “I am not afraid of your appearance.”
He revealed his tortured face and was pleased to see the guards flinch. Even Lord Berrian could not hide a pathetic shudder.
“What—” The lord’s voice cracked. “What business have you come to discuss with me?”
“I am in need of information.”
“The oldest of commodities.” The lord leaned back in his throne, evidently comfortable with this line of discussion. “Are you prepared to pay?”
Raven nodded in response.
“Before I name a price, tell me the nature of the information you seek.”
“I must know Azren’s plan for central Draza.”
Lord Berrian’s expression went from shocked to mocking in the blink of an eye. “For a moment, I thought you were serious. As I made perfectly clear at dinner the other night, I do not believe Azren is alive. And on the slim chance that he were, how should I know of his intent?”
Raven stared at Lord Berrian for several long moments, probing his resolve. “Because you are one of his servants.”
“Me? That’s ridiculous. You make such accusations in my home, in my very throne room?”
When they had first entered the castle, the guards had made an effort to confiscate their weapons, but because they were returning Lady Abigail to her father, the search had been more of a formal request for weapons. Raven had given up his swords, but not the stiletto he kept in his right boot. The same stiletto now concealed in his palm.
He strode forward.
Lord Berrian held out his hand once more. “I say, that’s—that’s far enough.”
Raven continued his advance and pressed the point of the dagger under Lord Berrian’s chin.
The lord rotated his eyes left, then right, perplexed at the lack of reaction from his guards. But from their perspective, Raven had scarcely moved. Why would he? It would be suicide to attack the lord. To appear as if he still stood a safe distance away with his arms at his sides was a simple illusion for Raven to uphold.
If the guards had glanced at their lord instead of fixing the illusion of Raven with baleful stares, they would have seen him recoil at the oncoming danger. They would have known. As it was, they were oblivious to what was occurring.
“I ask once more,” Raven said impassively. “Tell me what you know of Azren’s plans, or I will be forced to turn you over to the Council.”
The threat was for the guards’ benefit. That way, when they heard the fear in their lord’s voice, they would merely suspect he was a spineless toad rather than in real physical danger.
“Please,” Lord Berrian said, “I have no knowledge of the Afflicted One’s intentions.”
The real problem for Raven was the precariousness of the situation. If something was said about the stiletto or anything else that did not mesh with what the guards believed they were witnessing, the entire illusion would melt away like snow on the last days of winter.
“Then it seems I have no use for you.” His voice was so pitiless he left little doubt what he would do next.
Lord Berrian squeezed his eyes shut. When death did not come, he looked at Raven once more, his breath short and quick. “I can tell you this: A man visited me, short in stature, wearing a gray cloak that covered him head to toe. He offered me a large bag of coins and asked if I came across anything out of the ordinary that I keep it to myself. I figured he was a dogar.”
Raven did not believe him for a moment. He brought his face within a hand’s breath of Lord Berrian’s. “Choose your words carefully. Is there nothing more you wish to share?”
“I don’t—” The lord’s voice caught. “My cook . . . She was poisoned. It was a warning. Do you know what would happen if I crossed him?”
He looked deep into the lord’s eyes, his gaze promising an unpleasant fate. “A farewell to you, then.”
“Wait.” Lord Berrian cringed as if he expected the knife to slide home at any moment. Should either guard cast the miserable traitor the slightest of glances, the entire illusion would dissolve. Fortunately, they maintained their vigilance, staring directly at the spot Raven had once occupied.
What Lord Berrian said next was such a shallow whisper not even the guards could hear. “When I accepted the coin, the little man laughed. He told me Azren planned on taking this region without the use of armies, and if I knew what was good for me, I would find ways to serve him.”
That was what he had come for, confirmation that the Afflicted One was about to play his hand. Now what shall I do with the messenger?
He considered digging the stiletto into his lordship’s neck, imagining for a moment crimson blood draining from his body like a keg of ale. It was what he deserved. If Lord Berrian was not an outright servant of Azren, he had shown himself to be at the very least an accomplice.
Raven withdrew his dagger and moved back to his original position. He had gotten what he came for. The murder of this craven turncoat would be an unnecessary risk. He turned nonchalantly, conveying that he was done with the lord and not the other way around, and made for the exit.
His host, who moments earlier had appeared ready to melt into the ground, was quick to recover.
“Guards,” he said hoarsely. “Guards!”
The two men-at-arms flanking Lord Berrian snapped to attention, and several more came streaking in from the door.
“Escort this man to the dungeon. And take away his dagger.”
Raven allowed the guards to apprehend him without a struggle. Perhaps he had underestimated the nimble statesman. As they reached the doorway, he twisted to face the lord, despite his escorts’ efforts to hold him firm. “It would be unwise to keep me locked up.” Though the words may have implied a threat, it was not said with hostility.
Lord Berrian approached, smug now that the tables had been turned. “And why is that, my scarred friend?”
“Because I am the only one who can stop Azren. All others shall perish by his hand or live only to serve him.”
A mixture of doubt and fear came over the lord’s features, only to be replaced by fury. “I said take him to the dungeon!”
As the guards pulled him away, Raven felt a certain satisfaction. Azren was making his move, and that would leave him vulnerable. After years of patience, Raven would finally have his chance, and he would not—could not—be denied. Let the well-meaning fools get out of his way and the servants of Azren be slaughtered in his path. No prison would confine him, and no shackles would halt his progress.
Azren will be destroyed.
It was one thing to scream for someone to die and quite another to commit the act of killing. In the man’s hesitation, Daen could tell he was having second thoughts. But any attempt to take his weapon could end badly.
The situation intensified with the crowd’s urgings. The dagger wavered dangerously close to Sel’s eye.
“What’s going on here?” shouted a dogar emerging from the storefront. He had a white ponytail and narrow spectacles. “This can’t be good for business. Gebraldorth, get off that man. What do you think you’re doing?”
Selgrin’s assailant looked up, flustered. It was apparent he wasn’t sure how to finish what he started.
“I said get off,” repeated the proprietor, “or you won’t be buying any more yiltoline from my shop.”
“It’s the only shop—”
Gebraldorth sheathed the knife and stepped away to halfhearted boos from the crowd.
Selgrin stood up, looking miserable.
“You all right?” asked Zeph.
Sel’s tunic had been torn by his assailant, revealing his chest. He didn’t seem to notice. “C’mon,” he said and pushed past the proprietor into the store.
Daen couldn’t fathom Sel’s indifference. He was used to seeing his friend display more gumption. Not once had Selgrin yelled back at the crowd or denied what they were calling him. He’d told Gebraldorth to finish him—and he meant it. Is it possible Selgrin is as guilty as they claim? But of what, exactly?
Daen followed Selgrin and Zeph into the dark shop. The door swung shut as someone outside called for Selgrin to go back to his human kin.
Thoughts of Gebraldorth and the angry mob faded as Daen faced shelf upon shelf stocked with bolts of cloth of every color and texture. Here was the famed yiltoline in its purest form. He felt a bolt with his fingertips—nothing special about it that he could tell. Only the dogar knew its secrets, how it transformed with its wearer. Without yiltoline, the dogar’s shape-changing talents wouldn’t be nearly as useful.
Selgrin chose a thick, earth-colored fabric and brought it to the front of the store to the proprietor who had saved his life.
“I don’t suppose you sell one reasonably priced bolt of yiltoline in this establishment, do you?”
The proprietor gave him a hard look before bursting out laughing. “I didn’t recognize you at first, Selgrinostair.”
“Until you saw this.” Selgrin held up his stub.
“That, and I heard a rumor you had come back.”
“You can never tell when a rumor is going to be true.”
“More so than not in Feralintero, wouldn’t you say, old friend?” Selgrin nodded, and the proprietor placed a hand on his shoulder. “You look well. Maybe added a few pounds, but not in a bad way.”
“I appreciate the honest appraisal, Orfinathin. Perhaps you could use that honesty when selling your cloth.”
The pleasantries over, the two dogar faced each other.
“That bolt of yiltoline you’re holding is fifty raxburies. But for you, I’ll make it forty.”
Daen paid close attention. It wasn’t every day one got to listen to a pair of dogar haggling.
“That seems a steep price to pay for a piece of cloth.”
“You well know, yiltoline needs the working of a craftsman. The knowledge has become rare over the years.”
“Only because your family refuses to teach anyone else the secrets.”
“We all have our secrets, don’t we, Selgrinostair?” He peered over his spectacles.
Selgrin broke eye contact. Daen realized that the shopkeeper was trying to rattle Sel.
“Quite a coincidence, you coming out there to save me after my clothes were torn.”
“Coincidences determine our destinies, my mother used to say.”
“Or profits, in this case.”
Orfinathin gave a hurt expression that was obviously feigned. “Funny how I save your life and you focus on the timing.”
“Just saying it was convenient, that’s all.” Sel pulled back his ripped tunic. “It will be embarrassing to wear these ruined garments. Though if people ask, I’ll have to tell them I couldn’t afford your outrageous demands.”
Orfinathin ran his fingers over the bolt of yiltoline before finally letting out a deep breath. Daen had the feeling Sel was about to receive a final offer.
“How about thirty-five raxburies—but only if you introduce me to your friends.”
“Agreed,” said Selgrin. “Orfinathin, meet Zeph and Daen.”
The shopkeeper glanced each of them over. “My, my, so young. It’s like looking at fresh spools of thread.”
Zeph reached across the counter to clasp the dogar’s forearm. “Never met a dogar who works with yiltoline before.”
“It’s a talent that serves me better in peace than war.” Orfinathin gave a curious stare. “Interesting birthmark you have.”
Zeph let go and sprang his thumb up and down. It was wrapped in a pattern of crisscrossed lines arranged in a circle. “Always been fond of it, myself,” he said proudly.
Daen intervened before Zeph launched into some preposterous spiel about it being a Greymoon trait. “If you will excuse my bluntness, you appear more tolerant than most here toward outsiders.”
“To a dogar, tolerance goes hand in hand with one’s profits. Speaking of which . . .” Orfinathin turned his attention to Sel. “I may be old, but I haven’t forgotten about the thirty-five raxburies you owe me.”
“The way you harp for coin, I’d take you for a beggar.”
“Why don’t you let me put it on your brother’s tab? He is one of the wealthiest dogar in the city, and he spends so much with me, I doubt he’d even notice.”
“No, thanks,” said Selgrin emphatically, pulling a pouch out and shaking half its contents onto the counter.
Orfinathin counted out the coins. “I hate to disappoint you, but the exchange rate isn’t what it used to be.” He glanced hesitantly at Daen and Zeph before continuing. “Considering how uncertain our relations with the humans are right now, their gold crowns could end up being worthless inside these walls.”
Sel shook the rest of the coins from his bag. “How’s that?”
After more counting, Orfinathin declared, “I’m afraid you’re still short.”
Daen loosened the drawstring on his pouch. “Please, allow me.”
“Nah,” Sel said. “I have a better idea. Orfinathin, why don’t you put it on my brother’s tab?”
“I thought you might see it that way.”
“And while you’re at it, get me one of the gray-blue shudenar yiltoline, too. No sense being cheap when you’re not paying.”
“I always did say you had a shrewd mind for business. Now it’s time for your fitting—and the preparation of the fabric.” He guided Sel to another room and pulled a red curtain closed behind them. After several moments, he stuck a sharp nose out and said, “You two will probably want to take a seat.”
Many hours and a prolonged catnap later, Selgrin emerged. He looked exhausted and pale, leading Daen to speculate that the preparation of the fabric included the fluids of its owner—possibly blood.
“When can I pick up the final product?” Selgrin called weakly to Orfinathin over his shoulder.
“By the time the Senate votes, your clothes will be ready.”
Sel trudged forward the exit. “C’mon.”
The only upside of the lengthy fitting was that Selgrin’s admirers had given up waiting for him—fortunate, Daen thought, since he appeared on the brink of collapse. Daen grabbed Selgrin’s elbow when he stumbled at the first corner.
“Sel, you need to lie down,” said Zeph.
“It’s nothing that a flagon of ale won’t fix,” Selgrin mumbled as he plodded on.
“Are we going to the rally?” asked Daen.
Selgrin grunted his ascent, as if that was all he had the energy to do.
By the time they arrived, the sun was crossing the horizon and the rally was well underway. A throng of dogar stood near a platform, laughing, talking, and dancing to out-of-tune singing by some of the rowdiest among the crowd. The platform held a dozen empty chairs and a podium at its center. Hanging over its edge was a line of kegs. A seemingly endless supply of dogar were draining the kegs as fast as they were being brought in.
All the dark and curious looks Selgrin had received while walking through Feralintero seemed to be missing here. Daen suspected there was too much revelry going on for anyone to have noticed him. Selgrin filled a flagon and downed the ale. True to his word, the color promptly returned to his face.
Mayalordrel found them near the stage at ground level. “Not bad, huh?” she shouted above the din.
“The ale’s half decent,” Sel shouted back.
“Delisrakin has been the main benefactor of the anti-Azren movement. Have you seen him since you’ve been back?”
“I’d prefer not to.”
“I don’t think you have a choice.”
Just then, the crowd erupted in a frenzy, and they began to chant. “De-lis-ra-kin, De-lis-ra-kin.”
A lean dogar with curly salt-and-pepper hair and an exuberant grin appeared at the podium. His clothes looked newly pressed, and his face bore an uncanny resemblance to Selgrin’s.
“Replace the smile with a scowl and he’s Sel,” whispered Zeph. Daen had to admit there was no arguing with that.
“It’s a bit early for speechmaking,” said Delisrakin from the podium. “Let me first say you should all be proud of how hard you’ve worked—especially considering it wasn’t for coin. So drink up and befriend your fellow dogar. We’ll save the real celebrating for later.”
The crowd responded with another rousing cheer.
Delisrakin climbed down from the platform to address Mayalordrel. “Are you sure of what Lofilyer said?”
This time Daen did not have to read lips to catch Mayalordrel’s response.
“I am not being misled, if that’s your question. Lofilyer intends to vote against an alliance with Azren.” Mayalordrel pointed her head toward Selgrin. “I thought you might want to see someone.”
Selgrin was facing the opposite direction when Delisrakin grabbed him in a hug. “Baby bro, I’m so glad you came back. Has Mayalordrel told you about what we’re doing here? Finally getting Azren out of the dogar hair for good.”
Selgrin broke from the embrace. “That’s great, Delis.” He sounded considerably less than thrilled.
“Don’t you get it? It’s more than great. It’s what you were after from the beginning.” Delisrakin raised his voice above the crowd. “Everyone, I want to present my baby brother, Selgrinostair the Dersimeysous. Without him—”
But Delisrakin could not finish. Insults from the audience drowned out his golden voice.
A flagon whooshed past Daen and struck Sel’s back, splashing ale everywhere.
Delisrakin gave an apologetic smile. “They don’t understand.”
Selgrin glanced over at Mayalordrel, who had fixed him with a you-get-what-you-deserve glare. Of all the abuse he was receiving, Daen could tell it was her unspoken words that hurt him the worst.
“I think it’s time I leave,” Selgrin said.
“Selgrin—” began Delisrakin.
“Trust me, you’d be better off letting me go. Who knows what I might say or do otherwise?”
Zeph and Daen started to follow.
“Stay, both of you,” ordered Sel. “I’ll be back for the vote.”
He stalked off under a barrage of ridicule.
“What did he do to deserve all that?” Daen asked Mayalordrel.
“Selgrinostair was the Chamber Head of the Senate before the Great War,” Mayalordrel said. “His was the vote that determined we would join Azren.”
“He voted for an alliance with Azren?” Zeph asked incredulously.
“He never showed up for the vote, which caused those with Azren to win. What’s more, instead of sticking with his people and the decision he ultimately made for them, he left the very next day. He realized siding with Azren was a mistake, but I guess the payment he received was a large enough sum for him to turn his back on his birthplace.”
Daen shook his head in disbelief. That did not sound like Selgrin. But then again, it had been forty years ago. Perhaps he joined the Alliance to atone for his wrongdoings.
“Please, Maya,” Delisrakin said. “You can’t blame a dogar for siding with the coin. Besides, no one knew how Azren was back then.”
Mayalordrel continued. “Thousands of our people died. All of our cities except this, our capital, were destroyed. We barely escaped the fate of the rogrom, who lost everything during the war.”
“Sel did all that?” asked Zeph.
Mayalordrel nodded. “And the dogar people will never forgive him for it.”
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.