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...
Copius fought the urge to close his eyes as the giant bird took off. All of Korinth sprawled before him, yet a part of him wanted to block it out and just hang on until the ride was over.
Giant wings swept the air, yet still they dropped precipitously downward. He wondered if his weight was too much or if Sel just needed some time to adjust. Then somebody dropped down on top of them and any chance of staying aloft went to nil.
He twisted to confront what he assumed to be a Heavy when a deep, passionless voice spoke. “Veer left.”
Crash left was more like it. The ground was coming up fast, and Sel seemed powerless to stop it. Copius squinted as the bird tilted in the direction Raven directed. A crossbow bolt burst past a wing. The wall of a smithy loomed before them. Two thrusts of the wings and they gained a margin of altitude, somehow managing to clear the ridge of its roof before taking a dive.
They collided with the angling roof, bouncing off straw and twig before hitting open air. Sel gave one last beat of his wings to no avail. They plummeted downwards and slammed into the ground. Copius was thrown to the street, sliding and tumbling amidst a haze of dirt. He rose coughing but feeling fortunate he hadn’t been wearing his formals.
Poor Sel had taken the brunt of the crash. Back in dogar form, he got to his feet. Dirt was caught up in his hair and smeared across his face, and he massaged his right arm with his left stub. Copius had always known his friend to manage capably despite his missing hand. It was about the only thing Sel didn’t complain about. The weather was too wet, the roads too rough, his bed rat-infested—but never had he heard Sel breathe a word about his lack of a left hand.
“A perfect plan, foiled.” Selgrin spit out a wad of dirt toward Raven. “In case you didn’t know, dasmean sharpbeaks are not meant to carry such weight.”
“They are coming for us from the north. And east.” Raven’s voice was impassive, a soulless rumble of words. Add that to his scar-etched face and dark demeanor, and Copius wanted no business with him at all.
“Maybe we should split up,” he suggested.
Raven paid him no heed. “We must find the nearest place of worship.”
“Praying ain’t going to help matters,” Selgrin said.
“If you wish to escape, you will do as I suggest.”
Copius looked expectantly at Selgrin, who in turn studied Raven. “This way,” Selgrin finally replied, turning to hurry down an alleyway. It intersected with a main street where they came abruptly upon a tall, majestic structure of meticulously scrubbed gray stone with a tiled roof the color of cherrywood: the house of worship for Chardise, goddess of balance. Copius couldn’t help gawking. His own god inspired more pedestrian gathering places for the faithful.
Raven pushed into a courtyard where grapes dangled picturesquely from a trellis and stopped before a long and narrow grate partially hidden by a planting of pink trumpet flowers.
“Through there,” he said, staring down.
As a relatively new city built after the Great War, Korinth boasted a sewage system with outlets to all the major landmarks. Gutters around the church led toward a steel grate with a small door that looked like it would open—only it was too small to provide an escape.
Raven pulled a vial from his belt, unscrewed its silver lid, and traced the shape of a large square with careful drops over the bars of the grate. The liquid ate through the thin steel in a matter of moments. With a stomp, he kicked the square inward, clearing an opening.
“They went this way,” came a voice from behind the church.
Raven leapt through the opening and into the darkness. Copius heard him land. There was a bottom, despite the blackness, but who knew what was down there?
“You’re next,” said Selgrin, pulling him into position.
Copius got down on his knees, grabbed the steel bars on the edge of the opening, and slid down through. But he couldn’t let go.
Footsteps crunched and armor clanged ever closer.
“C’mon already, Cope.”
He clung to the grate. Was escape the right choice? First above the city, now below. Perhaps giving himself up was the safest way out of this predicament.
Selgrin grunted and leapt straight at him, wrapping his arms around Copius’s midsection and threatening to send them both plunging downward. Only they didn’t. Copius stubbornly kept his grip. He could see the guards rushing toward him, but a glance down didn’t make him feel any better. The black void below could end in sea of spikes for all he knew.
“Let go!” Selgrin hollered.
Copius didn’t want to. Venturing into the unknown was worse than sticking his hand into a jar of spiders. But like so many events in his life, it inevitably happened. Even joining the Order had not been planned, although it had ended up being the best decision—or more aptly put, the best indecision—he’d ever made.
It turned out letting go wasn’t so bad. The drop to the bottom was short, and Sel was there to cushion his fall.
“Sorry,” he said, following Selgrin’s crawling form into the shadows.
“Don’t worry about it,” grumbled Selgrin. “There are worse things to break than your back.”
Above them, the faces of two guards appeared. A tilting of heads gave the impression they were having difficulty seeing into the blackness. Their voices echoed down to Copius. “Can’t we shoot a few bolts down there and hope for the best?”
“You know the rule: the Undercity is off limits. Besides, even if it worked, which of us would go down there to retrieve the body?”
“You’re the brave one.”
“And you’re the stupid one.”
“Oh yeah? If you weren’t so slow, we would have caught up with them before they made it to the Undercity.”
The two guards disappeared, and their back-and-forth barbs faded.
Selgrin stood up. “You okay?”
Copius nodded and got to his feet, his eyes adjusting to the gloom. They were at a dead end with sewage running underneath the wall and flowing away from them, creating a rank smell he found barely tolerable. The ceiling was high, with torches spaced evenly along the stone walls that flanked them. They were not the first to use these underground corridors.
Raven emerged from the shadows as if borne from darkness. How Copius wished they had gone in different directions.
“The coward shows himself,” said Selgrin.
Raven was unperturbed. “I was not the only one evading pursuit.”
“But you sure didn’t spare us any concerns before making your escape now, did you?”
“Perhaps I wanted to be first to test the dangers of the sewers,” Raven said in a voice without inflection.
Sel’s faced reddened. He clearly thought he was being mocked. “If—”
The sound of voices drew near. Raven stepped back into the shadows. Copius and Selgrin followed suit.
“You pos’tive you heard the ring?” A thin figure came into view speaking to a short, squat man. Both wore a mishmash of clothes in various colors, sizes, and states of cleanliness. They reminded Copius of the impoverished people he had served food to as a young monk, their wardrobes a collection of cast-offs.
“We’ve been over this before, Yarlow. My job’s to listen for when the trash is ready. Yours is to carry the trash away.”
“I know, Deek, but the timing, it ain’t right.”
The two trash collectors continued to approach. Selgrin and Raven had melted into the shadows, but Copius was struggling to keep his ample body out of the line of sight. In a moment, the strangers would be upon them.
Selgrin revealed himself. “No trash today,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Hey, Yarlow,” said the taller of them. “We got a visitor.”
Selgrin nodded. “Just passing through.”
The two men approached him as they might a stray animal. “He don’t look right,” Deek said to his companion. “I think he’s one of those shape-shifter types.”
“So what if I am?” Selgrin glowered at them.
Copius didn’t blame him for being testy. Human prejudice caused some dogar to live in constant disguise, but not Sel. He lived blatantly as a dogar. His face was all angles, triangular in shape with a pointy chin and nose, narrow eyes, and sharp cheekbones under leathery skin. The most human feature about him was his curly salt-and-pepper hair; Copius had never seen hair like that on a dogar before.
“We don’t mean nothin’ by it—just don’t get a lot ’round here, that’s all,” said Deek.
Raven left the shadows and raised his swords to chest level, each pointing at a trash collector. “Clever of you to draw them in.” His deep, unemotional tone echoed chillingly in the close quarters.
“Put those swords down,” ordered Sel. “There’s no danger in these two.”
“Consider our danger should they reveal us.”
Yarlow threw up his hands. “We won’t say nothin.’ No one would listen to old Yarlow and Deek anyway.”
“Fine,” said Selgrin. “We’ll tie them up.”
“And what if they are found?” asked Raven.
“We’ll be long gone by then.”
“Their death would prove safer.” The trash collectors howled as Raven prodded them with the points of his blades.
Copius had heard enough. He stepped out from his poorly concealed hiding place and pushed his wire-rimmed glasses to the bridge of his nose. “By The One’s glory, you leave them alone!”
“You think my intentions self-serving?” asked Raven.
The response surprised Copius. “Y-Yes. Why else would you want them dead but to aid in your escape? They are creatures of The One. You—you cannot decide their fate.”
“Your accusations are unfounded.” Raven’s voice was devoid of passion. “The decisions I make are borne out of necessity alone. Emotion, honor, right or wrong, even religion cannot take part.”
Selgrin snorted derisively. “Is he serious?”
But Copius understood. He had encountered this before, just not to the same degree. They were the words of a man without faith—not in a higher power, not in anyone or anything other than himself. These were the hardest to convert, his father would say, but on that rare occasion, the most rewarding. He attempted to peer into Raven’s lowered cowl but caught only a swath of scarred chin. Had he been able to make out the rest of the features, he doubted it would have helped. A man like this was not easily read.
“So what?” Copius said, puffing out his chest. “Whatever your reasoning, I won’t let you do it. Not without a fight.”
Selgrin moved to stand next to his friend. “If that’s the way of it, I will add my blade to his.”
After several moments of tense silence, Raven dropped his arms and turned away. He strolled to the wall and leaned against it. “Your actions may lead them to a fate far worse than death.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” demanded Selgrin.
“That it’s better to be the victim of a well-placed blade than an errant bolt,” replied Raven, reciting an ancient adage.
“I prefer ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’”
“And thus, infinite is my resolve.”
Sel gave a bad-tempered huff before going to work tying up the trash collectors. Copius couldn’t stop thinking about Raven’s words and those hideous scars, red grooves that snaked over his face. The torment he must have endured.
“So what exactly is this place?” he asked as Selgrin roped up the legs of their prisoners.
“It’s called the Undercity,” said Deek.
“We’re the city under the city,” added Yarlow. “How do you think Korinth gets rid of all that trash they make? They need us to deal with it. But we don’t need them for nothin’.”
“How many of you are down here?”
Deek shrugged. “There are always more comin’ who are tired of it up there.” He rolled his eyes to the ceiling.
Copius squinted in the direction the trash collectors had come. “Do you know how we can leave this place?”
“Why would you wanna leave the Undercity?” asked Yarlow.
“Well,” said Copius with practiced patience, “what if it was important for us to get back to where we’re from?”
Yarlow held his arms to his side, allowing Sel to do his work. “You mean like if a friend’s sick and needs your help?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Then you might wanna talk to Ralscap. If anyone knows a way out, it’d be him.”
Selgrin tied off the knot. “And we could find him . . .?”
“The main square. Jus’ follow the sewage till you hit the market street. Turn right and keep goin’.”
“Yup,” Yarlow said, then added earnestly to Copius, “I hope that friend of yours gets better soon.”
“Friend? Oh. Yeah. I’m sure she will.”
“Now, if you don’t mind?” Selgrin held out a bundled piece of cloth in front of Yarlow’s mouth.
Sel stuffed the cloth inside. “Comfortable?” Yarlow nodded.
Selgrin completed the same procedure on Deek before announcing it was time to go. Copius walked shoulder to shoulder with Selgrin along the trail of sewage, Raven trailing behind them.
“This smell makes me want to throw back my breakfast,” complained Selgrin.
Hearing the word breakfast, Copius’s mind drifted to thoughts of food. “I never took my midmorning snack,” he replied, his stomach growling on cue. At first, the stench had made him light-headed, but after a time he’d become accustomed to it. “You don’t suppose this Ralscap will invite us for dinner?”
“He could serve us sewage if it meant finding a way out of here.”
Murmurs rose out of the silence from up ahead.
“You hear that?” asked Copius.
“Yeah, it’s probably Kynar with a bunch of Heavies in tow,” Selgrin grumbled unenthusiastically.
“Your problem, Sel, is that you don’t look at things in a positive manner. My father always said a positive manner is the first step to positive results.”
Copius took the lead. He could have sworn he smelled the hint of apple sausage in the air. The passageway continued another hundred feet before it crossed paths with a corridor at least a half-dozen horse lengths wide, like a creek flowing into a rushing river. Torches in great number lined the walls, casting a bright and cheerful light on the avenue. Carts rolled up and down with goods, from baskets to loaves of freshly baked bread. The scents of the marketplace overtook the stench of sewage, which was redirected down a tiny sliver of a pathway running away from the main street.
And there it was; Copius shuddered with joy. He could always depend on his nose. On the other side of the tunnel was a stand offering steaming apple sausages.
He approached the stand reverently, as if it was the final destination of a religious journey. A balding man with an overbite greeted him. “Would you like some delicious—”
Copius scooped up a handful of sausages and cradled them lovingly before stuffing a juicy link into his mouth. His eyes closed in bliss, and for a moment he forgot he was wanted for treason by the Council of the Alliance and that his chance of ascending to Ebony was all but obliterated—until he was interrupted by a demand for payment.
He swallowed the rest of the link, its peppery taste lingering, then dipped into his money pouch and doled out enough copper rungs to buy more mouth-watering gratification for the road.
The vendor spat on the offered coins. “We don’t take Uppercity coin around here.”
Copius stared at the spattered coins before grudgingly putting them away. “I don’t have anything else.”
“That broach will do fine,” the vendor replied, pointing at the silver design that served as a clasp for his Auburn cloak: a triumvirate of circles, one inside another.
Copius gripped it protectively, stepping backward. “No,” he said firmly, shaking his head.
Selgrin slipped in next to him, with Raven hovering alongside. “What’s going on here?”
“We don’t take kindly to Uppercity folk snoopin’ around, nor stinkin’ dogar.” Selgrin bristled. “Citizens have to register, trade in their coins, and explain how they will be useful down here. We don’t let just anybody in.” He extended a hand toward Copius. “Now the broach—”
“I—I cannot give you the medallion of my god,” he said. “Perhaps a prayer for you and your goods?”
The vendor sneered. “Spies!” he hollered. “There are spies here!” Several Undercity watchmen conversing nearby instantly perked up and started over.
“C’mon.” Sel pulled him in the direction of the flowing sewage.
They left the main street, entering an area overwhelming in its smell as the passageway compressed the foulness into its confines.
They barely had space to sprint by small shanties made of wooden poles and filthy blankets. Torches were fewer in number here. The unmistakable jangle of armor signaled pursuit was ongoing. Copius kicked something as they ran; he shuddered at the notion it might be a large rodent. Then he realized it was the only creature, man or animal, they had come across in this area. The inhabitants evidently left during the day—or they had been driven off.
The stench worsened the longer they ran. The shanties thinned until there were no more; even the most resilient could not make a home among such penetrating odors. The smell became overwhelming, and he stopped to retch. What a waste of good apple sausage.
Selgrin squatted next to him, yanking on his hair to avoid a similar fate. Only Raven seemed unfazed by the rank odor.
Hunched over and miserable, Copius wondered how things had gone so wrong. Not long ago, he had been back on the gilded path to Ebony, seemingly past the incident that had left him demoted and practically banished from Oberr. And now this—wanted for treason, on the run, too late to reverse the consequences.
“Do you think they are still following?” he asked between retches.
“I can’t imagine they’re paid enough,” Sel said.
Raven had earlier liberated a torch from its place on a wall—a fortunate move, because no more torches lit the way ahead. “Why follow when they can wait for us to come up for air? Our only escape lies forward.”
“Not so long ago, you said our only escape was down,” said Selgrin. “The way I see it, we’re right back where we’ve started, ’cept we’re running away from different armed men and the smell is a lot worse.”
“I can’t go any farther,” Copius said and exploded into dry heaves.
Raven turned away without missing a beat. “Then don’t,” he called over his shoulder. “Go back, surrender yourselves, and make certain to tell our pursuers you killed me.”
“I just might do that, but I won’t be lying,” Selgrin said. The remark drew no reaction from Raven. “Can you believe it, Cope? After we rescued him from the Council Chamber, he wants us to cover his trail as well. As if his life is worth more than ours.”
Copius didn’t think that was it. Raven had said something before about his actions being “borne out of necessity.” He must have given himself over to some greater plan that governed his every move—not unlike Copius in his service of The One. Only there was a difference: the work Raven did was single-minded, without thought for anyone or anything else, while Copius spread the teachings of The One, a message of benevolence and compassion toward others. He did his utmost to focus on the latter.
“His hardships,” he said, letting out a dry heave, “have not been easy.”
“Maybe. Maybe—but I still don’t like him.” Selgrin started off after Raven. “C’mon, Cope. If he can do it, so can we.”
Copius nodded and sent up a silent prayer to The One.
The torchlight ahead stopped moving, and they caught up with Raven. He had crossed the sewage to the other side of the passage to investigate a crumbling wall.
“What’ve you found?” asked Selgrin.
Raven hefted a rock without answer. Selgrin leapt across to join him, avoiding the sludge. Copius had his usual luck. He caught an area of the sewage that bulged out from the main flow and somehow landed ankle-deep in waste. He sighed at the squishing sound his sandal made, knowing the smell would remind him of the misstep for some time to come.
“Careful now,” cautioned Selgrin as Raven pulled another rock loose from the deteriorating wall. “You’re liable to bring the whole tunnel down upon us.”
Raven continued without pause. “It’s a facade.”
Selgrin took a moment to study the loose rocks. “These stones are of a different mineral than the ones that make up the rest of the Undercity.”
“Which means,” said Copius, adding his efforts to Raven’s, “they’ve been placed for some other reason than holding the ceiling in place.”
It was a needed change of pace, hefting rocks rather than evading pursuit. After watching Selgrin use his good hand to balance a stone against his hip for moving, Copius decided his own sopping sandal was of little concern.
Soon they had uncovered a narrow passage. Raven wedged himself inside sideways. Copius went next, with Selgrin half pushing him along. Cramped spaces normally made him anxious, but here the smell was bearable, the air fresher. Just as he took an appreciative deep breath, he noticed light streaming into the passageway. Sunlight.
Raven elbowed him in the gut, then thrust the torch behind him to hide the light. Crouching, he allowed Copius to see through to the next area.
Beyond their tiny crevice was a tunnel running perpendicular to them where men in armor cranked a row of wheels. The more they cranked, the brighter the tunnel became. Copius saw an opening to the outside. A horse-drawn wagon crossed their view, and then armored men followed. Not long after, they heard a more distant cranking, and the passageway began to darken.
Raven started shuffling sideways again. By the time they had squeezed out of the crevice, nothing remained of the outside world but a shaft of light. A corridor slanted upwards, slowly becoming steeper with a distant cranking noise as it devoured the light like a drawbridge being raised. Finally the last beam of sunshine blinked out altogether, leaving only a row of wall-mounted torches to illuminate the area.
They stood at a dead end in a passage with three pairs of cranks on either side. Opposite the closed-off exit was a torch-lit corridor where the wagon must have come from.
“The way out,” said Copius, pointing to the wall before them.
“We lack the manpower to turn the cranks,” Raven replied.
Copius looked from Selgrin to Raven. “Shouldn’t we at least try?”
“Not unless the dogar can change into something with eight arms,” said Raven dispassionately before proceeding in the only direction available.
To not even try—Copius couldn’t understand how anyone could have such a lack of faith. He gave the nearest crank a twist. It wouldn’t budge. Selgrin watched without comment or help. He waited until Raven was out of earshot before saying, “Let’s get going, Cope. We’ll find another way out.”
They’d been walking what must have been an hour or more when the passageway ended in a huge, rectangular open space. Sunlight poured in from slats in the ceiling high above them. Two guards in chain mail faced away from them, blocking their entry to what appeared to be a main square. Raven breezed past the guards with Copius and Selgrin following closely behind. The startled sentries made no move to hinder their passage.
The square seemed even larger once they were inside. Copius looked up, curious what part of Korinth was above them or if they were outside the city. There was no way to tell, though he imagined if it was somewhere with people, the noise traveling up through the slats would have attracted attention above. Vendors bargained with buyers along three sides of the square, and a grand underground residence formed the fourth side. Throngs of people surrounded a wooden stage in the center, where a plainly dressed speaker was animatedly delivering a speech.
Copius squeezed in among a crowd, which was growing in size and zeal. Onstage, a slim, middle-aged man held forth in a smooth voice that carried well in the underground space. His message was obviously hitting home with the audience.
“Maybe at one time we were their lap dogs, but no more. We bring in our own food”—he gestured to the vendors—“have our own militia, and govern ourselves. And yet they think we should pay taxes to them, recognize their leaders as ours.”
Boos and hisses erupted from the rabble.
The man paced from one end of the stage to the other, making eye contact with listeners and letting his points sink in. It reminded Copius of his father’s seminars, though they had never been this packed with people.
“Who among you believes we should be vassals to the city of Korinth?”
The crowd went still.
“I didn’t think so. I didn’t think so.” The man smiled playfully. “Now tell me, my friends, shall we kneel at their feet?”
Shouts of no came beating back at him.
“Shall we cower before them?” he asked more loudly.
“No!” Weapons and fists were thrust into the air. Copius realized these were not the passive spectators he was accustomed to.
The man roared back at them. “So what do we say to their demands?”
“No!” was heard loudly and plainly, among other unsavory responses.
There was a fine line between a spirited crowd and a mob, and Copius wasn’t sure which side these people were on.
“Exactly. No to doing their dirty work. No to paying their taxes. No to following their rules.”
The crowd began to chant: “Ralscap, Ralscap . . .”
Ralscap’s gaze swept across the audience, freezing when he reached Copius.
“We are our own city with our own people,” he continued. “Never again shall we bend to their whims. No matter the swords they send to stop us. No matter the spies that try to infiltrate us.”
The crowd looked where their leader was staring: Copius in his Auburn robes, next to him, Sel with his sharp dogar features, and Raven draped in black. They were rather conspicuous. Faces turned angry. If they hadn’t before, Copius knew this crowd had crossed over to the mob side.
“We’re not—” Copius tried to explain only to be drowned out by Ralscap.
“Can someone tell me how we treat spies in the Undercity?”
A half dozen threats were called out, ranging from tearing them to pieces to a graphic shout about heads on poles.
Copius sighed. Everywhere they went, people mistook them for traitors. He pivoted so he was back-to-back with Selgrin. “I suppose Ralscap isn’t going to be inviting us to dinner.”
“Afraid not.” Sel pulled out his short sword. “Or maybe I’m just not thinking in a positive manner.”
Whatever defense Copius had hoped to mount became useless as the crowd surged around him ready to carry out its earlier threats.
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.