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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 4: Den of the Wretched

By / January 22, 2017 / no comments

Wax Stamp 4

Den of the Wretched

 

The place was seedy, even by Zeph’s standards. Teeming with the dregs of society, it was the type of place where they wouldn’t attract suspicion. Not that one would be careless discussing transgressions—you never knew who might be listening—but at least he wasn’t lulled by a false sense of security.

When he arrived, Gunther was already waiting at a table, his flagon half empty. He greeted Zeph with an enthusiastic “Good to see you, my boy,” picking his hefty body out of a chair to pat him on the shoulder. As a frequent dinner guest at Gunther’s home and an honorary uncle of his three boys, Zeph was family.

“Gunther, my well-fed friend, how have things been?” asked Zeph, taking a seat.

The taskmaster’s cover was an Adairian merchant. He looked the part in a rich purple doublet studded with black stone buttons that threatened to burst against his swelling midsection.

“They say the success of a merchant can be seen in his belly.” He patted the aforementioned area.

“Then I declare you are the most successful merchant this side of the Laiyn River.”

“I wish that were true, my boy, I wish that were true.” Gunther’s smile faded, and Zeph couldn’t help but note that the worry lines perpetually creasing his forehead looked deeper than usual. “Not so long ago, independent merchants could earn a respectable living, but the merchant consortiums may be the end of us. They’re faceless creatures with no souls. And to make matters worse, the largest of them, PIKE, appears to be in bed with the Western Kingdoms.”

“If he hurries, maybe King Reginald could still trade PIKE back for the bedbugs,” Zeph said.

He heard Daen stifle a laugh at the next table. They had determined earlier that he and Daen would arrive separately. Zeph had lobbied for clearing up the supposed misunderstanding at the outset, but Daen’s more careful approach had won out.

“If only that were so.” Gunther absently drew a pattern on the table using spilled mead. “It’s a dangerous time to be a merchant, Zeph. Dangerous. An unprecedented number of bandit raids have put many of my good friends in the ground, the lucky ones out of business. Do you know what would happen if one of my caravans were taken?”

Zeph shrugged.

“Outside of my status dropping to that of a pauper, absolutely nothing. But if a PIKE caravan gets waylaid, they scream bloody murder. Since King Reginald is Protector of the West, he simply reimburses PIKE for their trouble. Reimburses them for all their goods.”

Gunther finished so loudly that patrons at nearby tables looked over to see what the commotion was about. The taskmaster continued in his normal tone. “But enough of this. My Fara would scold me for such outbursts. Says they’re not good for my health, if you can believe it. So, my boy, tell me about your last assignment. Did it go well?”

“Are tadpoles wet behind the ears?” asked Zeph rhetorically.

“I’m not even sure they have ears. More importantly, is the target dead?”

Zeph squirmed in his seat. He was supposed to leave the surprise until later. But how could he lie to Gunther? “Go ask him yourself.” He gave a slight indication with his head in Daen’s direction.

“You brought him here?” Gunther’s face reddened. “What were you thinking?”

Zeph’s own ire jumped a notch. “I was thinking there was some mistake. You should be thanking me. Do you realize the person living at that address was once a member of the Alliance? Not to mention a good friend of mine. I could guarantee you he is no enemy of the Council.”

“It is not your place to catch mistakes—or to make guarantees, for that matter. Your mission was to assassinate the target, and you failed.”

“Well it’s too late now. As far as Daen goes, you can report that Dela cut his thread longer than this.”

Gunther took a deep breath and exhaled, then a shallower breath, before his color returned to normal. “It’s not that simple. Not everyone thinks like you, that the ending is already written and the middle is merely fun and games. Most of us believe there are consequences to our actions, sometimes dire.”

“And who’s to say my thinking isn’t right?”

Gunther stared back placidly. They had had this conversation before with similar results. All Zeph knew was if he could plan each day according to how it would affect his future or take life as it came, he would choose the latter every time. “Can’t we just move on to the next mission?”

“There is no next mission,” said Gunther, pulling fingers through his hair. “Look, my boy, I like you—always have. Up until now, you have followed orders without question. And your track record, it’s been impressive. So I can’t, just can’t understand . . .”

Zeph waited silently. He’d never seen Gunther so agitated.

After several quick swigs of ale, he continued in a hushed tone. “Let me show you something.” Gunther pulled out a piece of red parchment, hiding it from prying eyes behind his flagon. On it was the name Zeph Greymoon. “You see this blood slip? I’m giving it to another Alliance member later today. I’m truly sorry about this, but if I don’t hand out this order, I myself will be a target. Besides, they would simply find someone else to deliver it. And if they knew you were aware of the order, they might send more than one assassin.”

“That can’t be right. I’m a loyal Alliance member—and well liked. Last I met with the Council, they offered me Levarian wine. Do you know how expensive that stuff is?” Admittedly, the wine had been brought out quickly after Zeph accidentally broke a supposedly rare figurine in the waiting chamber. “It’s probably just another mistake. Maybe you should go and talk—”

Gunther waved the comments away. “You think I haven’t tried? Something is going on with the Council. I don’t know what. You and your friend need to disappear.” He pulled out a second piece of red parchment. This one was blank. “I was supposed to write the location in Tennar of your next mark and give it to you. You would have found your maker waiting for you. In case someone is watching—and trust me, they are always watching—I’m giving you this blood slip.”

He rolled up the parchment and handed it across the table. Zeph stared at it. Why would the Council want me dead?

“Look, my boy, I understand your strong belief in Dela causes you to have little concern for danger. But I am asking you as a dear friend, get as far away from here as possible—and please try not to attract any unwanted attention.”

“C’mon, Gunther, you know how I feel about lying low.”

“Yes, I do. Why do you think you were taken off the high-profile jobs? The Council was disappointed in your handling of the Haven ambassador incident.”

“What did you expect me to do, twiddle my thumbs in a room for weeks on end? Patience is not a Greymoon virtue.”

“No it isn’t.”

The two stared at each other. For several moments, the only sounds were curses and boasts from the tables around them. Then Gunther let out an exasperated sigh. “For my sake, Zeph, do as I ask. You know how anxious I get over politics. Imagine what it would do to me if you were found dead? I’d likely keel over then and there.”

“But on the bright side, Fara would be free to marry someone who could teach the boys to fish.”

Gunther turned stone-faced. “I don’t find that funny, Zeph. Not one bit.”

“Fine. I’ll disappear.”

“And most importantly, don’t go anywhere near Tennar.”

He was about to protest—his best tailor was in Tennar—but thought better of it. Meeting Gunther’s eyes with his own, he asked in his most serious voice, “Did I ever tell you that you were fat?”

The taskmaster broke into a broad smile. “All the time, my boy. All the time.”

“Let’s just say that as your girth has grown, so has your heart.”

“I’ll remember that one. May even repeat it, if it means an extra helping at supper.” He rose, and Zeph started to join him but Gunther signaled him back. “You stay. Have a drink or two on my tab. It will be a long road ahead.”

Gunther had barely moved out of earshot when Daen said quietly, “You see now that I am right about the Council.”

“I admit it’s at least something we should be investigating, especially the wine. I’m beginning to think they offer Levarian wine to all their visitors. Kynar probably wears a hip flask full of it.”

“Yes, the wine is exactly what we should be investigating.”

“Just saying if they’re spending that much on wine, they have to be corrupt.”

A commotion erupted at the front of the tavern, involving the proprietor and a woman.

“You’re kidding me,” exclaimed Zeph.

The focus of attention was unmistakably Cahrin of Ilthane, looking just as stunning and dangerous as ever: white-blond hair cropped short like a boy’s, accenting soft, flawless features. Yet it was her eyes that begged for attention, large and burning cobalt blue against the thick black marking that outlined them. Holding a knife to her back was a man who could best be described as a regular of the establishment.

“Do something,” urged Daen.

“Me? I don’t even like her.”

The harsh gaze Zeph received reminded him of Daen’s demeanor back at the inn before they had recognized each other. When his friend had been bent on killing him.

Zeph rose noisily from his seat. He knew he would regret what he was about to do.

“Marak!” he shouted to the man who threatened Cahrin.

“Little busy here, Zeph. Maybe we could talk later.”

“Actually, now is a better time. I kind of know that woman.”

Cahrin gave Zeph a defiant look, as if daring him to save her.

“She yours?” asked Marak.

Zeph flushed. “Of course not. She’s a Northerner.”

“Then I’ll kill her.”

“Go ahead. It’s your head. And while it might not be so pretty right now, it’s going to look a whole lot worse removed from your body.”

Marak scowled. “Speak your mind.”

“The witch deserves to die. I myself have wanted to do the deed, but for your own safety, my friend, it’s just not worth it.”

For the first time, Marak seemed concerned. “And why is that?”

“Her father is the chieftain of one of the Northerner clans. If he finds out his only child was murdered—well, I wouldn’t be surprised if he sends out a raiding party after you.”

“I ain’t scared of no Northerners.” Marak spat.

“Glad to hear it. Most men would cringe at the prospect of being hunted down by a pack of angry savages. The way they can separate a wolf from its coat faster than a man can draw a sword. Or how they’ve been known to make an enemy weep tears of blood. You ever seen the hands of a Northerner?” He spread his fingers and tensed them as if gripping something. “Just large enough to fit over one’s skull. I can’t tell you how much this sacrifice of yours means to me. To finally be rid of her—”

“It’s not like she killed anyone,” Marak backtracked. “I ought to just give her over to the watch.”

“But you said you weren’t afraid. You can’t change your mind now.”

From the table nearby, DaSen coughed overtly. Likely he thought Zeph was overplaying his hand, but in Zeph’s experience, you had to commit fully when attempting to deceive. Sometimes he was so convincing, he had himself believing what he was pedaling.

A rough-looking patron tied Cahrin’s hands behind her back, allowing Marak to sheathe his blade.

Zeph sat down but continued to watch the proceedings. Secretly he had hoped for some furtive acknowledgment of his efforts. None came. The only expression he caught before Cahrin turned away was one of resentment. Typical. She was angry at him for saving her life. So be it. She could rot in a cell for all he cared.

He glanced over at Daen, sitting there all smug as if he had planned everything. No, that wasn’t it—what he was currently planning. He probably thought Zeph would help him rescue Cahrin. Ha! As if he would stick his neck out for her again.

He was about to say as much, to set his friend straight before he became overly committed, when Cahrin leapt toward Marak with her hands still bound, knocking him to the floor. By the time they pulled her off, she had the lobe of his ear in her mouth, which she spit into the face of the nearest ruffian. The arrival of the city watch was the only thing that kept her from being harmed, and her thank-you was a savage kick to the shin of the first to lay his hands on her.

Zeph shook his head in disbelief. No way was he saving her.

 

==> Continue reading, Chapter 5: Council Decree (available 01/29/2017)

 

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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