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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Daen managed his establishment according to two rules.
First, manners mattered. He treated all patrons as if they were guests instead of the deadbeat rabble they generally were. If his courtesy was not returned in kind, the guest would find himself bouncing off the dirt road outside.
Second, he gave no preferential treatment. Drink orders were taken in order of arrival. Loudness got you nowhere. You checked out of your room when you said you would, and you had better hope nothing was damaged.
By Daen’s own admission, he was an exceptional proprietor except for one thing: he didn’t belong here. He had been trained as a Nalescian sentinel, a member of the elite group that had once served at the side of the high king. There would be no end to the disappointment if his parents learned how he was now plying his skills.
So why manage a tiny establishment in a balled-up little town that owed allegiance to no kingdom? It was a question Daen put to himself every day. Hiding. Searching. Waiting. Whatever the answer, he tried not to dwell on it lest it bring on demons he was not ready to confront.
In the end, those demons came for him anyway.
The man arrived late one night, with a look about him you didn’t see often in these parts. He sat at the bar acting drunk and out of control, but Daen could tell he was neither. His smell, or the lack thereof, was the initial giveaway. His eyes were another. They had not glazed over from inebriation. When the man finally went for his shiv, Daen cut him down more quickly than topping off a stout.
He hoped the attempt on his life was a fluke, some slighted customer who’d found an amateur for hire to salve his injured pride. But he knew his days in Vean were numbered when the soldiers from Nalesc came for him.
He slipped upstairs as soon as he overheard them questioning the inn’s sole employee. It wasn’t until he entered the room that he discovered there was an assassin waiting for him. This one was better than the last, and it was only by feigning escape was he able to gain the upper hand.
Daen pressed his blade to the assassin’s throat. “Tell me who sent you.” The light of the moon played across the assassin’s features. “Zeph, is that you?”
“Daen.” The assassin grinned despite his predicament. “There’s more hair to you than face. Though that’s probably a good thing.”
Daen edged his knife back. Swiping his blond locks from his face, he replied with a formality honed over years interacting with Nalescian bureaucrats. “You should be watchful of your insults. I am still determining if I shall interrogate you or fix you with a bear hug.”
“I’ve always been fond of bear hugs, myself.” Zeph dropped his dagger and spread his arms.
“You certainly sound like Zeph.” And his friend’s appearance had changed little in the last four years: a jovial, clean face with curious green eyes and a nest of brown hair. “Now that I think about it, you wield a weapon like him as well.”
“Probably the only guy you know that could best you in a fair fight. Would have done so, too, if you hadn’t rigged the shutters to be an assassin’s death trap.”
This really was his good friend. Daen put his knife away and allowed Zeph to rise. “First of all, I have no remembrance of you besting me in a fight. Secondly, that was no assassin’s death trap, just a rope used to swing the shutters open when I need fresh air. Now let me ask you again: Who sent you?”
“You always were a stickler for details. How about we make this an information exchange? You explain how you were ready for me, and I’ll tell you about my assignment.”
“Agreed.” Daen stroked his chin and began to pace. “The room, cooler than it should have been. Likely an intruder had let the night air in. The armoire, conveniently placed next to the door. In fact, an all-too-perfect hiding place for any would-be assailant. My axe, concealed against my body. I never enter my room without it—not since my life was threatened a few weeks back. Your turn.”
Zeph assumed a stoic expression and stroked his own chin. Marching to and fro, he even lowered his voice in a horrible attempt at matching Daen’s. “The target, resident of The Rested Eyes Inn. The reason, don’t know, don’t care. The employer, the Council of the Alliance, defenders of the righteous and enemy of maligned forces.”
Daen chuckled at the performance. “Very clever, Zeph. It amazes me you have such trouble grasping what is plainly in front of your face.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“By now I thought you would have recognized the Council of the Alliance for what it has become: a group of ambitious, greedy, and corrupt men.”
“So that’s why you left?”
“What other reason would there have been?”
“I just assumed you abandoned us to tend to your wounded heart.”
Something inside Daen snapped. He reached for his knife.
“Easy now . . .” Zeph held up his hands. “Those were rookie times. We all loved Elise. She was a cute girl with a helluva spirit. But for whatever reason, Dela cut her thread shorter than most. Shorter than what seemed right. I figured you joined because of her, so with Elise gone, there was no sense in staying. I can’t blame you for that. Though a good-bye would have been nice. That’s all.”
Daen relented, but the anger would not subside. He hadn’t realized how his bitterness over Elise’s death had festered until now. If restraint hadn’t won out, he might have—only he hadn’t. He couldn’t. Not Zeph.
“The Council clearly still has the wool pulled over your eyes,” he said. “But enough of this. They are not of a mind to give up. I would appreciate that you not mention I survived—at least not right away.”
“No worries about that, my friend. When I tell them you were the one being targeted, I’m sure they’ll realize it was a mistake.”
His remaining hostility drained away. Zeph was still a naïve kid who didn’t know anything about anything. “So you do not believe me in league with malign forces?”
“Well if you were, you wouldn’t be stupid enough to let the Alliance find out about it.”
“No truer words have been spoken.” Daen wanted to smile but there was a pang he couldn’t ignore—a sense of regret. “You were right, before. I should have said good-bye.”
“The funny thing is, no one did.”
“How is that?”
“When the mission was over, we were asked to give our reports individually. I figured it was because of what happened, if you know what I mean. I was assigned to a new crew after that. Haven’t seen any of them since.”
“You have never been on another mission with Cahrin, Cope, or Sel?”
Zeph shook his head.
“Surely you ran into one of them during a training or at an Alliance-friendly establishment?”
“Not a glimpse.”
Daen scratched absently at his cheek. “That is odd.”
“If you ask me, the whole business was odd. You had undead crawling around like it was the second coming of the Necro Wars, and then—poof.” Zeph snapped his fingers. “They were gone.”
An awkward silence followed. Daen would have preferred not to have spoken of it to begin with. Four years he had been burying and reburying the memories of Elise’s death and the events leading up to it. He glanced at the floor. “I see you have a new blade since last we parted,” he said, hoping to restart the conversation on a lighter note.
Zeph picked the dagger up by the hilt with two fingers, turning it slowly to show it off. “It came into my possession by way of a duke.”
“That is quite a gift. For what honorable deed did you earn it?”
“I’m not sure if you’d call what I did honorable,” he answered with a sly smile.
Daen caught his meaning and stiffened. It was a fast reminder that his friend was more than the overgrown juvenile he remembered. “When do you return to your taskmaster?”
“Then I shall be on my way.” He pulled a backpack from under his bed and started stuffing it. Nalescian soldiers, hired assassins—if there really were gods, I would think they had it in for me.
“I’ve an idea,” said Zeph, grabbing his shoulder from behind. “Come with me. Together we’ll clear up this misunderstanding.”
“How do you know there is a misunderstanding? More likely the Council wants me dead rather than telling others the truth of their ways.”
“If you’re right, they’ll just send another assassin—albeit one with less skill than me. But some of them aren’t half bad.”
“Then I will have to dispatch the next one like the last two.”
Zeph stepped back. “Of course you can lay off all that dispatching with yours truly. As far as I’m concerned, the order was a mistake. I plan to take it up with Gunther, with or without you.”
“Gunther.” Daen paused thoughtfully. “I met the man once. He is a forthright sort.”
“And he’s going to love you. I mean, you two are so much alike. You’re tall, and he’s tall. You have blond hair, and he has blondish-brown hair—well, really more brown. Anyway, you both have hair.”
“I can tell already we will be the best of friends.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. You could only have one best friend and that’s me, right?”
“‘Best’ is such a strong word, Zeph. Can we not just say ‘past acquaintance’?”
Daen ignored a rap at the door. It was the sound of steel against wood—a soldier’s gauntlet or the hilt of a sword. “This meeting with your handler—will there be drinks involved?”
“As sure as my nose runs and my feet smell.” Zeph turned toward the door as a more insistent pounding erupted.
“Now that does sound a shade better than fleeing to the countryside.”
A voice called from the hallway. “We’re looking for the proprietor.” The Nalescian accent was undeniable.
“You gonna get that?” asked Zeph.
Daen casually picked up a slab of wood from behind the armoire and placed it across the door’s midsection just before it heaved inward “No sense keeping Gunther waiting.”
“Same way I came in?”
He followed Zeph down the cobbled side of the inn. A crash sounded from above as his feet touched the ground.
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.