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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 21: Transformation

By / May 21, 2017 / no comments

Wax Stamp 21

Transformation

 

Sel might have made straight for the main gates of Feralintero had he not dearly needed the yiltoline cloth he had ordered. He supposed the detour might throw the guards off their trail. They burst into the shop at a brisk run. The only other customer in the store gaped at the commotion as they rushed by.

“Hey, Rindulnene.” Selgrin used the counter to stop in front of Orfinathin’s nephew. “Have my items?”

“Sure, let me get them.” He disappeared through the red curtains into the fitting room.

  Is Tendrils of Darkness new to you? Click here to go to Chapter 1.

Zeph whispered to Daen. “Half the guards in the city are looking for us, and we’re shopping.”

Selgrin threw him a menacing glare, interrupted by the return of Rindulnene with two neatly folded garments. He did not seem to notice the group’s anxious appearance. “It’s good to see you, Selgrinostair. You staying in the city long?”

“Nah, I’ve overstayed my welcome.”

“That’s too bad.” Rindulnene slipped the garments into a brown cloth sack and began tying it closed at an excruciatingly slow pace as Selgrin tapped the counter impatiently.

Shouts carried from outside the shop.

Selgrin plucked the sack out of Rindulnene’s hands. “Um, Rindulnene, any chance you still have that handy back exit?”

“Same place as always. Hey, are these friends of yours—”

Selgrin didn’t wait for him to finish before leading the others past the fitting curtain.

The route to the city gates was circuitous, with no deserted nooks good for hiding. As they pelted through the streets, Selgrin wondered if he’d ever see them again. Would these streets be around for anyone to enjoy in a year from now, or would they be blackened and charred, a casualty of war?

They turned down a narrow alley, skidding to a halt at the sight of guards at the other end. They had not been spotted yet, but Sel heard sounds of pursuit from the direction they’d come. With guards advancing from both sides, there was no chance for escape. Even if they cozied to the wall’s long shadows, the alley was so narrow the guards would literally bump right into them as they walked by.

“There they are,” shouted Velotanin from somewhere above them.

That was it, thought Selgrin sourly. They would be captured, put on trial, and sentenced to death. His actions would be seen as another attempt to influence the vote, to strike an alliance with Azren. No one would believe the traitorous Dersimeysous, despite what his brother had told a few dozen dogar at the rally. Lofilyer’s neighbor had seen him enter the Chamber Head’s home, for Dronilowyn’s sake. And as outsiders, Daen and Zeph didn’t stand a chance.

“They are by Petewolith’s shop,” continued Velotanin. “Quickly now! Go before they get away.”

Petewolith’s bakery was in the middle of the block several streets over—about the only spot Velotanin could have told the guards that would cause both groups to change directions. Selgrin could not believe their luck.

“They won’t be fooled for long.”

Sel looked to see a head jutting through the window above them. He recognized the voice and silhouette. Delisrakin. He had been pretending to be Velotanin moments ago, throwing the guards off their trail.

“Thanks,” called Selgrin. He knew the risk his brother was taking by helping them. The punishment for a dogar who used his abilities on another dogar was severe.

“Baby bro?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry. Sorry for everything.”

Selgrin wasn’t sure what to say. His anger had built up every day he had been away from his home, festering. He realized now for the first time the burden his brother had also been carrying—the weight of so many dead and, ultimately, the fall from glory of the dogar race.

“It’s all right, Delis. Really. It’s like I always say, what’s done is done. You didn’t know any better. None of us did. And what you’ve accomplished since—well, it’s nothing short of remarkable.”

Delisrakin beamed, and for a moment, Selgrin remembered how it had been when he and Delis were inseparable.

“You’d better go,” said Delisrakin, breaking the short silence. Despite his serious tone, Selgrin didn’t miss the smile still plastered to his face before he vanished from sight.

“Looks like you have a brother after all,” said Zeph.

Selgrin gave a nod of satisfaction. His visit to Feralintero hadn’t turned out as he had hoped. Maybe not even close. But he had recovered a brother he thought he had lost. And if they were lucky, they might just escape.

But when they arrived at the gates, Selgrin got the feeling luck might not be on their side. A row of torches illuminated the obstacle to their escape: a dozen guards with Velotanin in their midst. Before they could turn back, he spotted them.

“Attempting to run away again, Dersimeysous?” he called.

Selgrin winced. “Beats sticking around to ally with Azren.”

“And you think befriending the humans any better? They are never going to embrace our kind. With Azren, at least we have an opportunity at regaining the glory of our past. Of course, I will support whichever way the vote goes. Would you, Dersimeysous, stay and do the same?”

Whichever way the vote goes. Selgrin wanted to laugh. The vote was already in Azren’s pocket, and Velotanin knew it.

The senator strode toward Selgrin, stopping within an arm’s length and speaking softly to keep what was said between them. “Lend your support, and this whole incident could be a mistake. You were simply visiting Lofilyer and found him dead.”

“Kinda funny how the truth rings true.”

“In your prison cell, I want you to think about it. It’s never too late. Your people need you, Dersimeysous.”

More likely, Velotanin needed him to inspire the rank and file, using his abilities to bolster the cause. He’d use his abilities, all right.

Selgrin shoved the senator away. “Grab onto my shoulders,” he said to Zeph and Daen. He took a deep breath—and transformed.

 

Section Break

 

The ground fell away as they were thrust into the air. Zeph’s chest slammed into something solid and he realized he was lying flat, clutching a thick shell. Daen was nearby, doing the same. They were on a giant plated worm at least ten dogar long and four wide. Its tail, which had grown inside a nearby house, narrowed to a bulbous tip. The front of the creature ended in a circular maw lined with hundreds of jagged teeth.

Spectators gaped. Some pointed; others cheered. Zeph was pretty sure they were riding a welanob. He rose onto his knees giddily and waved at the onlookers. Selgrin writhed and Zeph barely kept from falling as the shells clacked together impressively underneath him.

He decided he should probably hold on with both hands.

“Take it easy,” he called toward the orifices on the side of the worm’s head, although he had no idea if Sel could hear through them.

At first, the guards stood frozen in wonder. Zeph hoped the welanob might be able to slide on by, and that would be that. But then Velotanin went into action.

“This is your final warning,” he shouted.

The welanob responded by bellowing an excruciatingly loud and long note. Anyone in front of it was forced to squat down or risk being knocked backward by the vibrations.

When the roar ceased, the guards regrouped and launched spears that bounced harmlessly off the welanob’s hard outer shells. Another deafening roar ensued. More spears rained down from behind like sticks thrown against a mountain. Zeph started as one grazed his leg.

“Isn’t that against the Treaty of Vermouth or something?” he shouted. Dodging sharpened weapons made the entire riding experience decidedly less entertaining.

Spectators surged, vying for a better view. The welanob shifted its giant frame toward the crowd, then twisted around as if it would travel back into the heart of the city. The ground trembled as it moved. Spears continued to stream in from all sides.

“Not that way,” said Zeph, fearing a spear would find its mark at any moment. “Unless you’re planning on stopping somewhere for drinks first, the exit is in the other direction.”

The welanob curled about until it faced the city’s main gate again. A burst of air escaped its maw. Unlike the earlier bellowing challenge, this sound was not loud. It resembling an elongated sigh. The effect was an excited rustling among the audience, which had spilled out into dangerous proximity to the monolithic creature.

“There you go,” Zeph encouraged. “Now time to crawl, or slither, or whatever you do.”

But the welanob didn’t move. Uncertainty, confusion, stubbornness—Zeph wasn’t sure. Perhaps Sel just couldn’t bring himself to leave Feralintero.

“Oh, c’mon already. Do something.”

The giant worm raised its head high above the crowd and Zeph lost his grip, sliding past clacking shells.

“Zeph!” Daen called, clinging on for dear life.

Another volley of spears soared toward them. While Daen was riding above their trajectory, they appeared to be falling directly at Zeph. He rolled off the welanob, using its body as cover. Safe for the moment as spears rebounded off armored shells, he watched the welanob peer down at the crowd and blow streams of air. Some of the dogar fled. Others tried to follow the air thrusts, like children chasing scattered showers on a summer day.

Zeph struggled to his feet as a group of spearmen made a wide arc around the giant worm and came rushing at him.

 

Section Break

 

Sometimes when Sel took a form so unlike anything he was accustomed to, he became distant from himself. That’s how he felt now, lost in his cavernous body. The dogar around him seemed indistinguishable, like blades of grass in a meadow. He had an insatiable desire to brush against the warm earth, twist all around, then bellow to the heavens. Some part of him knew he needed to move forward, past the gate, if only something wasn’t holding him back. Something—or someone.

Among the scores of tiny creatures below, he searched for one with chestnut hair and eyes the color of forged steel. In the dark of the night, it was an impossible task.

Endless spears dropped around him. Orders were barked, threats made. But it was the enthusiastic support of the dogar spectators that broke through his muddled perception. No matter how long he had been gone, these were still his people. If he laid down in the street, would they lift him up or would they become his jailkeepers? There was only one way to find out.

Selgrin ceased his searching. He brought his head to ground level and became still like the trunk of a fallen birch tree. Waiting.

 

Section Break

 

A wedge of spearmen came at Zeph. It was probably the wrong time for him to be marveling at their impressive formation: weapons lowered to precisely the same position, their movement in lockstep. But he couldn’t help it. He had never seen a company of spearman work in such unison before.

Then the back end of the welanob flailed, sweeping them from their feet and knocking Zeph into the air. Zeph somehow landed on the welanob again, but facing the wrong direction.

More spearmen closed in.

“Sel, it’s really time to get out of here,” he called.

He gave the worm a pat. It was to no avail. The great welanob’s head settled on the ground and ceased moving altogether. Dogar were now coming at them from all directions. He and Daen had a matter of moments before they would either be pulled down, run through, or both.

Zeph gave a kick with his heels. Then another. It was no good. “C’mon, Sel. You know how embarrassing it would be to die on the back of a worm?”

Boots shuffled forward. Spears leveled.

“Go on, get out of here!” called a voice above the commotion—Mayalordrel.

Whatever spell Selgrin had been under shattered at her command. The welanob scrunched together, its mid-body rising from the ground and then springing forward, sliding along the dirt with breathtaking speed. Zeph held on, twisting his neck to watch what came next.

The great worm brushed back the dogar at its side, and the ones before it dove out of the way. A haze of bodies could be seen within a massive cloud of dirt. Selgrin slid by a coughing Velotanin, sprawled in a heap under the choking dust.

Another lunge set them advancing for the gate at an even brisker pace. Unlike the area outside the gates, there were no lances here to stop the worm’s progress. Thick wood and a knot of soldiers were the only remaining obstacles.

Spearmen leapt to safety as Sel barreled forward, striking the gate at full force. The sound of splintering wood followed the welanob’s farewell blare, which echoed through the streets as the creature tore through the barrier.

Zeph clung desperately to his seat. Dirt clogged his lungs, shards of wood flew in every direction, and an ebullient crowd cheered in their wake. Even the guards seemed satisfied by the escape. No one chased or threw a final spear. The citizens of Feralintero simply watched as the roaring welanob streaked into the night.

 

Section Break

 

“That’s exactly what they said.” Cahrin laughed again. Her chest ached from the night’s endless mirth. Perhaps it was the wine, or maybe just being with an old friend.

Copius laughed too. His smooth cheeks were bright red, courtesy of the alcohol.

Thoughts of Azren and his minions seemed far away as she and Copius sat on the edge of the bed sharing their misadventures.

“Tell me, what do you think of this Lord Berrian?” she asked.

Copius paused in contemplation. “I can’t complain about the table service. I’ve eaten seven varieties of cheese since being here. Then there are the nuts—ah, glorious nuts. Not to mention the most tender mutton, sprinkled with spices.” He looked as if he was about to go into one of his food comas just talking about it.

“But how does he come by those exotic foods? I cannot believe it’s his own doing. Those hands of his—soft like the fur of a weasel. They can only have been used for patting the backs of others. And did you notice that reaction to his daughter’s return? I think he was rather hoping she had stayed and married Kynar, or maybe that one who is the head of PIKE. It’s all about political power and gold crowns with his kind. Typical ghasiv, I say.”

“Did I mention the cheeses?” Copius asked with all seriousness.

“You certainly did.”

“Seven varieties.”

She was about to give a most unladylike retort when she noticed how bloodshot her dear friend’s eyes were. He was not himself this night. “Are you sure your Order allows you to drink wine?”

He wiped stray droplets from his chin. “My father says that in the original Book of Ilias, alcohol was prohibited. Then war started, and that page somehow disappeared.”

“Was it your father who encouraged you to become a monk?”

“Oh no, not him. He was dead set against it.” The question sobered him up. “My grandfather was recruited into the Order of One. He worked his way up to Ebony and became a hero during the Great War.”

He looked up at the ceiling, focusing on something only he could see. “My father would have nothing of it, though. Never liked the violence and bloodshed. He set himself to be a clergyman for the Order and wanted the same for me. But all the stories about the monks, the glory and splendor of it—the lure was too tempting.”

“It seems to have worked out all right,” she said. “When I last saw you, your robes were blue, and now they’re reddish.”

“Auburn, actually. I’m a monk of the Auburn Order. Only one rank below Ebony, the highest rank a monk can achieve.” He drained his cup. “But I’m afraid this is as far as I get.”

She folded her arms and smiled indulgently. “And why would you say that? I’ve seen you fight. Ebony cannot be so elusive.”

“To reach Ebony, they don’t just test your fighting abilities. You need to . . . be a certain way.”

“I’m glad you cleared that up.”

“It’s hard to explain.” He rose from the bed and began to pace from one side of the room to the other. “Have you ever been in the presence of an Ebony?”

“Not that I remember.”

He faced her earnestly. “You would remember. Ebonies are like no other. They make a crowd hush and a king take notice. Their very presence commands respect. Monks of the Ebony Order are always dignified, proper, and capable. They don’t trip over their own two feet—so you could see how that would preclude me.”

She crossed her legs and patted the bed for him to come over. “I don’t see anything of the kind.”

He sat back down somewhat reluctantly. “Not to mention one must be sponsored by an Ebony to even take the test. And I could guarantee that won’t happen in my case.”

“Copius Crux, since when did you become so pessimistic? I think you’re letting Sel rub off on you—and not in a good way.”

“I wish that were it.” Copius cast his eyes downward. “I beseeched every Ebony alive to sponsor me. No one would.”

“How can that be? Surely with your skills and your grandfather’s reputation, someone would have you. There’s something you’re not telling me.”

Copius shook his head.

There was something, she was sure of it, but she didn’t want to browbeat her friend about it. “I guess I’ll have to join your little order and become an Ebony, just so you’ll have a sponsor.” When he still didn’t respond, she lifted up his chin so his eyes met hers. “You’re not going to let some holier-than-thou monks get to you, are you?”

His ears reddened to match the rest of his face, but he pressed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, looking resolute. “N-N-No. No, I’m not. Besides, I-I don’t need to be an Ebony to serve The One.”

He reached for the open bottle of wine on the nightstand. Slipping from his grasp, it tumbled downward, splashing his robes and smashing to pieces against the stone floor. Glass and wine went everywhere.

Norweegee, who had been curled up at the foot of the bed, woke with a start.

“Oh my,” Copius cried. “I’m such a dolt.”

“No worries.” Drunk monk, glass bottle—she should have seen this coming.

“I’m so sorry. I’ve ruined everything.”

“Nonsense. We had a very pleasant evening. But to tell you the truth, it’s getting late for me. Why don’t you clean yourself up and let me take care of this? I’ll meet you in the main dining hall for breakfast.”

“No, no. I couldn’t leave you with such a mess.”

“Please. You think in a castle full of staff I can’t find someone to help me?”

“I suppose.”

“Exactly. Now, go suppose yourself back to your room.” She gave him a firm look.

“Can I at least—”

Go.”

He started away slowly, his face awash with guilt and she shooed him on.

Norweegee was already settling down again, apparently unconcerned that his caretaker was off to roam the halls of a strange castle alone at this time of night. “Lazy beast,” she admonished. “I’m not sure what Master Ulfin ever saw in you.” The xaffel seemingly took no notice, his chin tucked in, nestled against his belly.

She slid on some slippers and left the room, wondering why she found the mess so laughable. Perhaps it reminded her of days long past, like the time Copius had tripped down a flight of stairs, taking a group of loudmouthed ghasiv with him. He’d been unhurt, having the ghasiv to fall upon. Afterwards, the only thing the ghasiv were loud about was how much their bodies ached.

“Anyone there?” she called down the hall. Despite the torches that lined the wall, the distance between them created a gloomy, almost haunting atmosphere. She hadn’t been lying to Copius about being tired. She yawned as she passed room after room.

A pair of voices echoed through the twisting hallways. Finally. Certainly one of them could help her. As she drew closer, Trudor’s tortured pitch became evident.

“And the master’s wishes?” Trudor asked.

A youthful voice replied, “My father sides with the righteous and rich, of course.”

“Of course,” agreed Trudor. “But the others . . . They have left the castle for the dogar city.”

She stepped behind a pillar.

“They’ll be back. Their friends are here.”

“Quite right. I see.” Cahrin imagined Trudor twisting his mustache most irritably as he said this. “Then it’s settled.”

A rustling noise approached from behind her. Cahrin turned around to find Maria, the woman who had been attending her.

“Lady Cahrin,” said Maria before she could be stopped. “You should not be out of bed this late.”

The voices up ahead hushed. Cahrin knew she was about to be confronted, possibly unpleasantly.

“Oh, Maria, I’m so glad to have found you,” Cahrin made her voice loud so it would carry. “A bottle of wine was broken in my room. Would it be much trouble to have it cleaned up?”

“No trouble at all, my lady. I will be there at once.”

As Maria hurried away to take care of the task, Trudor and an athletic-looking man with in fine threads came around the corner.

Trudor cleared his throat noisily. “Having a pleasant stroll, are we?”

“I was looking for help,” Cahrin tried her best to sound a bit frazzled. “I apologize if I’ve disturbed the lord’s advisor and . . .” She raised her eyebrows at the young man.

“This is Demetrius. He is Lord Berrian’s son.”

Of course. Now that he said it, the resemblance was obvious, from his noble cheekbones to his springy brown locks.

Demetrius dropped to one knee and kissed her hand. “You must be Cahrin. Your beauty betrays you.”

This one certainly is the charmer. “I was not aware I had a reputation.” She flashed him a dazzling smile. He was her way out of this uncomfortable situation.

“Actually, I am an old and dear friend of Zeph’s,” he said. “We met the first day of Alliance training. Since then, we’ve gotten together now and again—even been on a few missions.”

Trudor stepped forward. “I hate to break up this introduction, but Demetrius and I were speaking about delicate kingdom business. It is very unladylike to spy on us.”

“I was not aware that ‘delicate kingdom business’ was normally discussed after hours in a deserted hallway.”

“So you do not deny listening to our conversation?”

“I deny hearing any kingdom business. I had barely gotten here when I happened upon Maria.” She could not help trembling. Her body was tired and still in need of recovery.

Trudor did not fail to notice. “So then why do you appear so nervous?”

“One might pose the same question to the lord’s advisor.”

He glowered, twirling one end of his mustache furiously.

“Ever since I was a youth,” Demetrius said in a conciliatory manner, “Trudor has been nervous. He says it’s the primary trait of any good advisor.”

“Perhaps the present company causes my condition.” She did her best to appear smitten by Demetrius.

“Or perhaps you are fatigued, my lady.” Demetrius took her arm in his. “Allow me to escort you back to your room before you stumble upon any more kingdom business.”

An infuriated Trudor glared in protest. She gave him a smug look before leaning against Demetrius for support. “I would like that very much. Could you perchance tell me some stories about yourself and Zeph along the way?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

By the time they arrived back to her room, Maria was nearly done cleaning up the wine. Cahrin waited for her to leave, then locked her door, changed into her nightclothes, and lay on the bed with her eyes wide open.

And the master’s wishes? Trudor had asked.

My father sides with the righteous and rich, of course.

If only she had heard more. It could have been nothing of importance. But then why had Trudor been so suspicious? Maybe she should go find Cope. At the very least, he could assuage her fears.

Cahrin scooped up the xaffel and put him in her robe pocket. “This time, you’re coming with me.” Her earlier outing had left her out of sorts, and she could do with a little companionship, even the pink-bellied kind. Norweegee snorted at the disturbance before settling back comfortably. Cahrin could somehow feel his contentment, which helped to calm her own nerves.

She opened the door, looking in both directions. She would have to go downstairs to get to Copius’s room. What if Trudor and Demetrius still roamed the halls? She doubted she could squirm her way out of any further situations. Maybe I’ll wait until morning. No, that won’t do. I’ll never be able to fall asleep with these thoughts in my head.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped outside her room and closed the door. Already she was certain she had made a mistake. A long hallway later, the hair on her arms rose. A shadow moved behind her—or perhaps it was the flickering of a torchlight.

“Hello? Can somebody help me?” she inquired into the darkness.

If it was anyone outside of Trudor, she could feign ignorance of where to find Cope’s room. She turned back around and continued onward. There was no reason to be frightened. She had been stalked by an enemy raiding party and fought a snow leopard with only her hunting knife.

And yet she could not convince her arm hair to lie down or her heartbeat to steady.

She padded toward her destination, eager to be past the lonely, dark corridors. She could hear whistling up ahead and sped up, turning down the stairwell before the whistler came into view. She breezed down the steps and around the corner to the next set of stairs, feeling a rush of adrenaline. Nearly there. One more turn, then down the hallway to the left.

She caught movement out of the corner of her eye before a gauntlet closed over her mouth. She elbowed backward—pain. Half turning, she glimpsed a suit of armor gleaming in the torchlight.

“Put her in the trunk.” The voice was Trudor’s, though he was hidden from her.

A silvery arm wrapped around her, holding her fast.

No. She tried unsuccessfully to shake free. This was treachery. She needed to warn the others, assuming she could escape first. Her nails lashed out but found only steel; her squirms accomplished nothing.

Norweegee awakened with a jolt and leapt from her pocket to the shoulder of her captor. He jabbed his talons through the man’s visor in an onslaught of frenzied, desperate attacks.

The grip on Cahrin only tightened. Her vision blurred, and her head pounded. She sucked at the wisps of air that filtered through the gauntlet. Norweegee’s frantic clawing cut through her final thoughts as if they were her own before she finally succumbed to unconsciousness.

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 22: Declaration of War

 

book-cover-with-spine

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. 

Learn more about the people, magic and places of Draza along with a detailed map and history at TheBlackTrilogy.com. Questions and comments are welcome, email [email protected].

About the author

Will Spero

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.

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