Tendrils of Darkness — Epilogue
Epilogue With No Man’s Land finally behin...
Tendrils of Darkness — Epilogue
Epilogue With No Man’s Land finally behin...
Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 50: Final Confrontation
Final Confrontation Years of sentinel train...
Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 49: Secrets Revealed
Secrets Revealed Circling Copius, the owlbe...
“Norweegee,” called Cahrin. Where had the xaffel gone to now? It was just like him to disappear when it came time to clean.
Master Ulfin had finished dinner and retired upstairs to his room. That meant no evening lesson for Cahrin, which was a welcome break. She had been training twelve hours a day since becoming the summoner adept’s apprentice nearly two years ago. Lately it had gotten even worse.
Cahrin cleared the dishes from the table and was wiping it down when she heard a snigger from the corner. There, a tall wooden cloak rack stood upright on three legs with a cloak draped over a crook and a fat pink behind stuck out on one side. She picked up a crust of bread from Master Ulfin’s plate and sighed.
“I guess since Norweegee has disappeared, I’ll have to throw out the leftover bread. And this piece looks so good, too, with the juices from the venison soaked in. It really is unfortunate.” She held the treasure up temptingly.
A furtive glance toward the cloak rack caught the creature’s pink bottom swaying anxiously. The temptation proved too much for the little guy. As the xaffel rushed to show himself, the cloak pulled taut, and the post rocked treacherously before settling back into position. Norweegee slid across the table to a stop in front of Cahrin, talons folded. His large, pale eyes pleading.
“Oh, all right.” She dangled the bread above the creature, who measured barely a hand’s height, only to snatch it away. “But first you must help me with the dishes.”
Norweegee took a giant leap to the sink, a distance of at least six feet, and got to work. Cahrin finished tidying up about the same time the last dish was scrubbed more or less clean.
Hopping back to the table, Norweegee stretched out a four-taloned hand to claim his reward. Not a moment after Cahrin placed the chunk of bread on the table, the xaffel stuffed it into his mouth, scattering crumbs everywhere.
“Pink-bellied slob,” she scolded, wiping down the table once more. A final scan of the kitchen told her it was good enough. Already her mind was imagining a soft pillow and a warm bed.
Her blissful thoughts were interrupted by the distinct grating of the stubborn window in Master Ulfin’s bedroom. How odd. That window was kept closed this time of year.
“Did you hear that?” she asked the xaffel.
Norweegee let out a contented groan before curling up on his side. He couldn’t communicate with Cahrin, only Master Ulfin, though Cahrin could hardly imagine what useful tidbits Norweegee would share. Invariably, it had something to do with food or sleep.
She heard a thud followed by a hollow echo from above them, probably her master about one of his late-night eccentricities. But the hair rising on her arms told her otherwise, and her instincts from a life spent mostly in the mountains of the north were rarely wrong.
“You’re coming with me,” she said, scooping the xaffel up. Despite his sharp talons, she didn’t expect Norweegee, with his soft, plump body, to be of much help if she ran into trouble. Still, there was strength in numbers, her father had always said. Oh Father, what would you think of me now?
She moved to the base of the stairwell, straining to listen. Nothing, like the silence proceeding a Dehiar raiding party. Then the xaffel went tragically limp.
“Norweegee?” she whispered as loud as she dared.
The creature slumped unresponsively, cradled in her palm like so many piles of wet parchment she’d taken out to dry. A final failed attempt to rouse him confirmed her fears: something had happened to Master Ulfin. As his familiar, Norweegee was a barometer for whatever the summoner adept was going through. A lifeless xaffel could only mean one thing.
She followed the creaks from the upstairs floorboards as they crept toward her. If something had befallen Master Ulfin, then who was in his bedroom? She put the pieces together like a tracker reading the signs of the terrain. There had been the sound of the window opening, the curious thud, Norweegee’s abrupt death, and now the creaking floorboards. It could only mean one thing.
Why does death follow me so? After years under Master Ulfin’s patient guidance, she could hardly fathom being left alone again. A fond memory flashed of her master’s nod of encouragement during a difficult training session. She would not let his death go unpunished.
She placed Norweegee on a cherrywood shelf and unsheathed her hunting knife. She hesitated. She was a summoner now; she need not rely on brute force.
Think. What creature should I unleash? A pallan? It would certainly deal with any predator, but it was a poor protector. An aototo? That could work. The house would be decimated, but so would my enemy.
She had never attempted a summoning without her master beside her. That safety net was gone and would never return. She let the rage build up within her and drew courage from its fire.
Her hand rose to eye level. Delicate fingers painted the air. Master Ulfin always said that summoning was best saved for the diligent, and anyone who had watched a summoner in action could see why. The sheer number of signs she had been required to learn was mind-boggling, and each was complex in its own right.
She concentrated on tracing the intricate symbols, knowing that the smallest error would leave her exhausted with nothing to show for it. The near-silent padding of feet down the stairs heightened her sense of urgency, but she did not hurry.
Finally the creature solidified before her. It was intimidating to behold, about as tall as she was and half her height again and at least thrice her thickness. Coarse, black fur shot outwards. Saliva dripped off needles for teeth. But it was the claws one needed to be wary of, curved like miniature cutlasses.
The creature turned. Cahrin could sense its intentions: to rend the skin from her bones. A cold front slithered down her spine; then she imagined Master Ulfin guiding her, his kindly face belying the force of will that emanated from him like an aura. “Careful, do not get ahead of yourself,” he would say when she became too anxious. “You must dominate it as if you are its creator.”
Cahrin bent her will around the aototo as she had been taught. She would command it, and when she was done with it, she would send it back to its own world. The creature fought against her. It could so easily bury its teeth into her soft neck—and it attempted just that.
No! Her spirit shouted, sending the aototo’s fur flattening against its body. She curled her will around its spirit and squeezed with every ounce of her strength. She could tell the aototo detested this strange new world and considered her a demanding little nothing. It wanted only to wipe her from existence. But its spirit was being crushed, and finally the creature relented.
She spun towards movement at the foot of the stairs. A black-clad figure was leaping at her with his knife extended.
Protect. The aototo burst from the shadows and barreled into the oncoming assassin.
She realized her mistake too late. Caught off guard, her assailant might have been torn apart. Instead, he tumbled halfway across the room before gathering his feet beneath him. Following its directive, the aototo stood formidably between them, roaring in challenge.
Cahrin had expected the assassin to be shaken, backtracking—looking for somewhere to hide. This was not the case. He barely gave the needle-mouthed creature a glance. Instead he fixed Cahrin with a hunter’s stare, whose message she had been taught as a girl: never let your eyes stray from the prey lest you lose them in the snow.
Grabbing a one-handed crossbow from his thigh, he loaded it and swung it toward her.
I was his target from the start. It pierced her thoughts as surely as any bolt. If the assassin had been after her master alone, he would have left the same way he’d come in. But he had come for her. And she would be no easy prey.
Destroy. Cahrin had never issued the command before. It was easier than it should have been, and the aototo had no qualms obeying.
The assassin held his ground. Rather than fleeing in fear, he aimed.
Cahrin dove for the cover of the stairs. She heard the bolt cut air before it thunked into a post a dagger’s width from her head. Part of her wanted to stay crouched behind the wooden bars watching as the aototo shredded the assassin, but she needed to find her master.
She raced up the steps and threw open the bedroom door, half expecting to find him as he always was, at his writing desk. He was not. His body lay still in a bloodstained bed.
She cursed the assassin, hoping he would endure a lengthy death. The sound of wood splintering came from downstairs, and she felt the aototo’s anger as its prey escaped. Follow and obliterate.
She was tired of death. It had forced her from her homeland in the frigid north, where clan fought clan. Now her kind master had become its latest casualty. She tried to ignore the fresh blood on her master’s nightshirt, focusing instead on his wrinkled face. If it weren’t pallid, drained of blood, he might have been sleeping.
She kissed him gently on the forehead and recited an ancient Northerner prayer: “May your spirit find new company while your deeds grow old in those you’ve left behind.” A rare tear fell onto his cheek.
The link between her and the aototo abruptly severed. Perhaps it had gone too far; a summoner’s range was limited. If that was the case, it could do almost anything for a short while before its anchor to this world dispersed. Almost anything. So what would the creature most likely do?
She heard something pounding up the stairs. It’s coming. No time to regain control. The next moment, the aototo was barreling through the doorway toward her, spewing saliva as it roared. It leapt, claws groping for purchase. Without thinking, she dissolved the remnants of the anchor that held it to this world as it continued its lunge, tearing at her shoulder and raking her midsection. But she felt no pain. Already ghostlike, the aototo faded before hitting the ground.
Cahrin took a deep breath, forcing a tremble from her body. She’d think twice before summoning an aototo again.
She gave a final look at her master, inwardly thanking him for everything he had done for her. Cahrin had been with the Alliance for five years when he approached her about an apprenticeship despite her obvious Northerner heritage. Even now, she dressed much as she had the day she met Master Ulfin: goatskin pants, a top dyed blue, a dark brown cloak and boots trimmed with fur, and a beaded choker adorning her pale neck.
Her people had been the first humans to escape the Old World and come to Draza. Landing on the frozen shorelines of the north, they took up residence in the Glasshorn Mountains, what her people called Ked’coon. Five clans had roamed the peaks for over three hundred years before they discovered the ghasiv, the Undeserving humans of southern and central Draza who spread their plague to every corner of rock and earth, stopping only at No Man’s Land, the desolate expanse that bordered Ked’coon.
Cahrin retrieved the small pouch of coins from Master Ulfin’s dresser that had been taken from her and stored here when she first began her training. With it was a folded parchment with her name written on it in her master’s flourishing script. Opening the note, she read his final words to her.
To My Most Stalwart Apprentice,
While my death may seem sudden, I have known this day would come for some time now. This letter serves as a farewell and a warning. I leave this existence with a swell of pride. Your magical talents manifested just as I had believed they would. I bid you many more years to master your craft. Keep safe all I’ve taught you.
As for your warning, I have uncovered a treachery that reaches the highest level of authority. Be it kings or queens, dukes or lords, I cannot yet say—except that my death is likely the result of how near I draw to the truth. Be wary. The tendrils of darkness are all around us. Only the careful and cunning will escape unscathed.
Sincerest of Farewells,
Master Ulfin Mather
No wonder he had been so anxious of late to teach her everything he knew. Unlike other schools of magic, it was knowledge that defined a summoner. The summoning signs to bring forth each creature from Otherworld were unique, and a true name was needed to assert control. These closely guarded secrets were handed down from master to apprentice. Many of the most powerful summoning spells Cahrin had read about had been lost due to the reluctance of an adept to share his knowledge.
She pocketed the note and strode to her room where she grabbed the satchel from her closet that was still packed with her old belongings, and shouldered her hunting bow and quiver.
Heading downstairs, she found half the wall of the house had been torn asunder by the aototo, revealing endless sky and a sand-strewn road. The assassin was nowhere in sight, but she spotted a piece of black cloth on the ground She pocketed her only evidence of the assassin and proceeded to the pantry.
She stuffed a bag full of provisions. The last time she and Master Ulfin went on an outing, he had repeated three times not to forget the dried pear. She smiled briefly, then frowned. There on the cherrywood shelf was Norweegee. His pink skin looked like a blanket sagging over everything but his protruding tummy and bald head, where the skin was pulled taut. She had no idea if he was dead or in a state of shock. Even when he was bouncing from one area to another, his chest didn’t rise and fall; he came from Otherworld, where air was not a prerequisite for life.
She picked him up and placed him in her cloak pocket. A summoner could only have one familiar, and Norweegee had served her master loyally. The least she could do was give him a proper burial somewhere down the road.
She felt a touch of sadness that she couldn’t show Master Ulfin the same kindness, not if she wanted to follow the trail before it grew cold. But there was something else she could do to honor him. She pressed her hands together to her forehead and then spread them outward in an arc. It was her people’s way of swearing a grim oath of revenge, a promise to kill her master’s assassin no matter the cost. She remained absolutely still, letting the grim oath soak through her spirit and percolate to every region of her being. Then she left the house for good.
Outside, the air was brisk. They were well into spring, yet it felt like the last days of winter. It was too bad the snow was gone, she thought. Then it would have been easy to follow the assassin. As things were, the darkness and windswept terrain would be too much for her tracking skills.
Her other option was to call forth some help, which she was reluctant to do after the aototo. It is just a cuatal she assured herself.
When the cuatal appeared, it allowed her will full dominion. It was a cute little thing, like some fluffy white ghasiv pet. Although it was only about as long as her arm, its nose made up a third of its length.
She pressed the torn piece of assassin’s garb to the cuatal’s nose. It wiggled its backside and started off in pursuit.
She spent the next several hours urging her master’s horse to a canter, only to ease up as the frenetic cuatal oscillated between speeding ahead and pausing to find the scent. It was frustrating, considering that the assassin was clearly following the road. Still, she had once been told the only difference between a fierce warrior and a rotting corpse is that the corpse was no longer making assumptions. For all she knew, the assassin could have circled back around to make a surprise attack. The cuatal’s remarkable sense of smell was all that kept her from looking over her shoulder.
As the hours rolled by, her energy ebbed. It was late, and the concentration needed to control the cuatal was taking its toll. Pulling off the road, she dismissed the furry creature and made camp. She did not risk a fire.
Cahrin laid Norweegee down next to her for the night. Heavy for his frame and flaccid like a wet rag, the pink-skinned familiar appeared destined never to move again. She touched his tummy where the pinkness of his skin was lightest. When he had eaten too much, which seemed all too often, she would try to make him feel better by stroking the length of his stomach with her fingertips. She did this now, back and forth across his rounded belly as her thoughts drifted off.
The light of the sun woke her from a discontented slumber. Her hand still rested on the unmoving xaffel. A feeling of loss lingered. Master Ulfin and Norweegee had been all she had known over the past two years. Before then, she had crisscrossed Draza on various Alliance missions, growing weary of the self-indulgence and prejudice that clung to nearly every ghasiv she came across. Master Ulfin had provided her with a needed refuge. But he was gone, and as with her homeland, she could not return.
She tucked Norweegee in her cloak pocket and gathered up her gear. She called upon a cuatal once again, but even without assistance, she could have guessed where they were going. The nearest town this direction was a haven for thugs, assassins, and mercenaries.
It was late afternoon when her suspicion was confirmed and the wooden walls of Yridark poked up above the horizon. Master Ulfin had told her it had been built generations ago when the ancient inhabitants of Draza banded together in an attempt to eradicate the ghasiv. She snorted. Evidently her people were not the only ones who felt the ghasiv undeserving of the lives they led.
She walked her horse the rest of the way to the gates. She had been taught it could be construed as arrogant to ride one’s horse up to a guarded entrance like some prince or lord. Not that she knew much else about horses. There were none in the mountains of the north, and it had taken her some time just to get accustomed to the long-legged beasts of burden. She still tensed when galloping.
Guarding the gates to Yridark, if you could call it guarding, were four men armed with swords, flagons of ale, and some gambling dice. Two dueled with their dice over a wager of coin. A third had apparently drawn his flagon once too often and leaned against the wall on the verge of collapsing. The remaining sentry leered at Cahrin as she approached. He was unshaven with a rancid smell about him.
“What you coming to Yridark for, missy?” His drawl indicated he’d enjoyed a flagon or three himself.
“I have business inside,” she replied.
“Hear that, boys? This ’ere lady has business in Yridark.” The guard chuckled, as did his dice-playing companions.
She was tempted to set an aototo loose on the lot of them. Instead, she decided on a less satisfying approach. She picked a few coins from her purse and clanked them together. “For your trouble.”
The guard grabbed the wrist that held the coins. “It’s been some time since we had a lady at our gates with such . . . character.” Eager eyes accompanied a bawdy smirk.
She leaned in close, pouting her lips to draw the guard’s attention while she pressed her knife into his gut. “I suggest you take the coins and let me through.”
To the guard’s obvious relief, his cohorts seemed too busy cursing and watching each other for cheating to notice his predicament. “Open ’er up, boys,” he ordered.
Between dirty glares, they pulled apart the thick wooden gates. Returning to their seats was nearly as entertaining, one stumbling backward in his refusal to lose sight of the other.
Cahrin opened her hand, letting the offered coins fall to the ground.
“Now if I were looking for an assassin, where would I go?” she asked.
The guard’s eyes followed the coins as they bounced, speaking once they had settled. “The Crooked Nose is what you’re lookin’ for, missy. Jus’ through them gates and follow your nose.” He tapped his own nose and chuckled.
She sheathed her dagger and proceeded toward the gate. If these were the guards, she couldn’t wait to meet the real lowlifes.
“When you’re done,” the guard shouted after her, “come back and see me. I’ll be here all night.” He then fell to his knees, groping for the dropped coins as if they were buried treasure.
The Crooked Nose was a cross between a tavern and a hideout for scoundrels, a place catering to the most undeserving of the Undeserving. Cahrin saw no bar, just a row of barrels in the middle of the room drained on a self-serve basis. Loud boasts filled the air, mixed with hushed discussions.
She stood a few steps inside the door watching as a man in tan breeches and a food-stained tunic pocketed some coins from a nearby table. “Is that all?” he asked. “Your work must be getting sloppy.”
“The Council is scooping up all the choice jobs,” the other retorted. “It’s either this, or as they say, ten percent of nothin’ is nothin’.”
“Ten percent of what you earn won’t cover the cost of your tab,” said the proprietor. He caught sight of Cahrin watching and replaced his scowl with a lecherous look up and down her form that would have been criminal in any decent establishment. “How can I be of service?”
She dipped into her pouch and produced a handful of silver crowns to show she had the means. “I am looking for an assassin.”
The proprietor stepped closer. “What type of job do you have? Perhaps you’ve tired of your husband? Or is there an amorous rival you want to make disappear, if you catch my drift?” He winked broadly.
She fought the urge to gouge the man’s eyes out. “The job entails the death of a skilled magic user.”
He nodded with understanding. “Nol specializes in those magic types. Does the job need to look like an accident?”
She gripped the pommel of her hunting knife so tightly that her knuckles went white. “It was no accident.”
“The job to kill Master Ulfin Mather. Was Nol hired?”
The proprietor held up his hands. “I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
Her blade flew to the man’s throat. She knew she was being reckless, but on her grim oath, she would make the one responsible pay for what he did. “Where’s Nol?”
By this time, even with the overall rowdiness of the tavern, some patrons had begun noticing their exchange. She could hear the murmurs. She pressed the knife against the proprietor’s neck like she pressed her will against a summoned spirit. He did not speak, but his eyes gave him away. She followed his line of sight to a man sitting in a corner, his head cast downward.
“Are you Nol?”
He looked up from his drink, the lighting in the room spread across his features. It was him, all right.
Then she noticed the diminutive figure seated next to him, draped in an oversized charcoal cloak with the cowl pulled down past his crown. What is he doing here? Her blood boiled at the sight. It had been many years since she had crossed his dark path—in the distant north, in another life.
She never would’ve guessed she would find the only two people she had ever sworn a grim oath against sharing a table in Yridark. Now all she had to decide was who to kill first.
She shoved the proprietor aside and advanced on her enemies.
A moment later, she felt a sharp point at her back and heard a rough voice dripping into her ear. “Drop the knife, Northerner wench.”
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.