Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 26: Late-Night Encounters
Late-Night Encounters Zeph risked a furtive...
Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 26: Late-Night Encounters
Late-Night Encounters Zeph risked a furtive...
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Selgrin’s limbs stretched this way and that as the crowd fought over him. His body was lifted off the ground. One man yanked at a boot while another threatened to pull his precious curls from his head.
“That’s enough,” called Ralscap loudly. “That’s enough, I say. I need them alive.”
His soldiers pried Selgrin, Copius, and Raven free of the crowd and led them on a circuitous route through the Undercity. Their destination was a prison, where they were bound and gagged and forced to wait in darkness.
It was many hours later, with the only sound being the grumbling of Copius’s stomach, when Ralscap arrived. Beside him was a soldier so enormous he blocked the illumination from the hallway as he stooped to enter.
Ralscap removed the cloth from Selgrin’s mouth. “I am Ralscap, the magister of the Undercity.” After a lengthy silence, he continued. “If you will not do me the same favor of an introduction, I might as well let the angry mob have at you.”
Selgrin weighed his options. It wasn’t like he was hiding anything. He would have given up Kynar’s deepest secrets if he’d known them.
“The name’s Selgrin Nalestrad. And for your information, we’re no spies.”
“I should say not. A dogar, a monk of the Auburn Order, and a black-clad magic user. You are more likely treasonous members of the Alliance. What I like to call valuable commodities.” He obviously knew they were being pursued and planned to use their capture to his advantage. “The Undercity has another valuable commodity. Do you know what that is?”
“I gather it’s not the magistrate’s pleasant demeanor,” Sel replied gruffly.
“You hurt me, Selgrin Nalestrad,” said Ralscap in mock injury. “I will tell you, despite your lack of enthusiasm for the answer. It is our silver. We mine it and sell it, not to the denizens of Korinth, who would give my people a fraction of its worth, but to the merchant consortiums. So you see, I know how to leverage a commodity.”
“If you’re going to trade us to Kynar, I’d prefer to skip the song and dance.”
“Then let me get to the point.” He stepped in close enough for Sel to smell the hint of cinnamon on his breath and be reminded Copius wasn’t the only hungry prisoner. “It is well known that Kynar has detained a noblewoman, the Lady Abigail of Embia, beyond her intended stay in Korinth. She has become his prisoner.”
“Why would Kynar keep a noblewoman as a prisoner?”
“You might equally ask why she is in Korinth to begin with. One man hopes to force his daughter into a place of power, while another wants a wife.”
Human politics. Embia had been stripped of its place in the Realms after agreeing to a truce with Azren during the Great War. Members of the Embian nobility had lost much status. Sel had to admit that a marriage to Kynar would be quite the coup.
Ralscap put his hands behind his back and began to pace. “The reward I could obtain from her father for freeing the lady could triple the militia of the Undercity.”
Selgrin was not naïve. By freeing the lady of Embia Ralscap meant abducting her, and by reward he meant ransom. Already this was sounding dangerous. “Where do I come in?”
“It is said that when the Old World was smoldering and my ancestors fled, they arrived on these shores without any magic at all. The elder kind showed us how to shape the elements, bring forth objects and creatures from nothing, and even change one’s perception. But we never learned how to mimic the shape or voice of another. It’s a secret our dogar friends would not share.”
“It’s not a magic that can be taught.”
“So your people claim,” said Ralscap. “Regardless, its use is imperative in this endeavor. Kynar keeps Lady Abigail locked away from everyone save himself. Using your dogar abilities to become Kynar’s spitting image, you will rescue Lady Abigail from her prison and bring her to me. It’s simple, really.”
Sel had been around enough years to know there was little in this world that was simple except maybe a pint of ale on a warm afternoon, and even that had its hazards. But what choice did he have?
“I could look like him, but I can’t do the voice.”
“Really?” Ralscap sounded surprised. “I thought they went together.”
“Some of us can copy faces and body shapes, while others are experts in voices. Very few dogar have a talent for both.” Another little-known fact was that dogar could change their appearance but never their total mass—not that it mattered in his case. Selgrin was unique among his kind, cursed and blessed by his own abilities.
“That will have to do,” said Ralscap. “Take Byrtle with you as your personal escort.”
The towering soldier stepped forward. Selgrin figured he’d be doing a lot more than escorting.
“Pleased to meet ya.” Byrtle extended a meaty hand, then bashfully withdrew after realizing Selgrin’s arms were tied to his body. Copius and Raven’s wrists had been bound together, but being one-handed had made securing Selgrin’s wrists problematic.
“Um, yeah, a real pleasure.” He turned to Ralscap. “You know, there might be trouble. No offense to the big fella here, but I think you should send the monk with me, just in case.”
The magistrate shook his head. “Take the other one. Byrtle is all the muscle you’ll need, but if something unexpected should happen, a magic user may prove useful.”
“Useful, maybe. Treacherous, definitely.”
“The same might be said of the dogar.”
A perception my people have been unable shake. “Let me have the monk, and we’ll bring Lady Abigail to you.”
“No. I think I’ll keep him as a hostage. If you decide to make an escape, he will be promptly handed over to the Council.”
“So much for trust.”
“I believe your kind used that up when they joined with Azren during the Great War.”
“It’s been forty years since then. We’re not the first to be on the wrong side of a war.”
“Maybe not, but you’ll find humans have long memories when it comes to bloodshed.”
“And no memory when it’s convenient. I’ll have you know I was an early Alliance recruit. Probably spent more years toiling against another Great War than you’ve been alive.”
“And yet the Council wants your head.”
Which was exactly what was bothering Selgrin. He slumped his shoulders in resignation. “When do we leave?”
“I think now would be the perfect time.”
A myriad of images flooded Cahrin’s mind, flashes of places and events coming faster and faster. One of these moments was her current reality, but she could not seem to find it. The creatures of Otherworld were nipping at her heels, chasing her to the next moment.
Finally her savior arrived: the great owl god, Ofunu the Wise. He picked her up and flew her to a snowy mountaintop, where he asked her to stare deeply into his eyes. So doing, she became lost in his piercing gaze, and a new reality unfolded before her.
She found herself home with her clan looking at the world through the eyes of a much younger self. Majestic, snow-strewn mountains lay before her in breathtaking fashion. She longed to spin around and take in the entire scene while whooping at the top of her lungs. But she could not. Ofunu had merely sent her along for the ride. Trapped inside herself at the crossroads of womanhood, Cahrin was at the mercy of the decisions she had made so long ago. She could feel her thoughts and emotions from back then entwining with her more experienced perspective on it all.
She caught her breath. There in front of her was a youthful Pa’hu, black hair swept across muscled shoulders that shone with sweat. He had been her dirksa, or spirit partner, since childhood. It was her clan’s tradition that a family would take on a boy to raise alongside a young daughter. The two would live in the same shelter, eat the same food, and learn to bond until eventually the ritual of spirits was performed. Only then would the Capkecka, or Clan of the Owl, recognize them as one.
Pa’hu was returning with others from a hunt, the head of a balemoth on his back—a sign it was his spear that had felled the great beast. Her father came forward to congratulate the warriors. Schie Bura was the twelfth in Cahrin’s family to be given that designation and leadership of the clan, and he had arranged for the son of the clan’s deadliest warrior to become her dirksa. Tall, athletic, and cunning in battle, Pa’hu had grown up to be the spitting image of his father, and then some. No man or beast could best him, and he constantly pushed himself to be better.
Pa’hu delivered the balemoth to the feet of Schie Bura. “We are being watched.”
A look of concern crossed Schie Bura’s face. “How many?”
“Four. By their pattern, Pouk believes they are Dehiar.”
“Scouts,” said Schie Bura under his breath. “They are plotting a raid. We will dig wooden spears into the ice all around camp. Then let them come if they insist.”
Oh, they will come. Cahrin remembered vividly the bloodshed and folly that followed.
“Why must we make war with our brothers?” asked a frustrated Pa’hu.
There was a patience in her father’s eyes Cahrin knew she lacked. “Ked’coon struggles to hold so many in his hands. Without war and death, he might drop us all.”
“Then perhaps it is time we leave his shelter.”
Others muttered in agreement.
Cahrin remembered this conversation and similar ones. She heard a longing in Pa’hu’s voice her younger self had failed to recognize. If only she had heard it more clearly, like she did now, so much would be different. Maybe she could have prevented the tragedy that followed.
“This is no time to speak of such. Come, we must prepare.”
Those returning from the hunt did not protest, except for Pa’hu. “I will make sure their raiders do not wait behind the nearest ridge.”
Schie Bura nodded his approval.
Pa’hu often went back out after a hunt. Sometimes he returned before nightfall with another kill; sometimes he stayed out tracking a wolf until morning.
As often as she could, Cahrin took the opportunity to join him. She relished tasks traditionally reserved for men: hunting, tracking, and scouting. As a chieftain’s daughter, she had learned these things well, but now that she was older, her father no longer condoned her participation. But when she was with Pa’hu and because it made the bonds of their spirits stronger, her father looked the other way.
How Cahrin wished he had forbidden her to go.
As was usual, she trailed Pa’hu a safe distance back, slowly gaining ground until finally trying to surprise her love. Not that she ever succeeded. He would lure her in pretending to be engaged in some other activity, often blasting her with a snowball as she approached. She did not mind. Although she always hoped to someday get the best of Pa’hu, even the clan’s most gifted hunters never caught him unawares.
Today seemed different. He did not pause as he usually did to study animal markings or eat. Cahrin struggled to keep up. Her breath became labored. She lost sight of him. She battled steep climbs and deep powder, her heart rattling painfully in her chest, until there he was. Even from a distance, she saw the telltale signs her love was troubled. Instead of walking in his normal stride, one that came with belonging with the mountain, he marched forward like a warrior of an invading army.
Pa’hu arrived at the top of a rise and called out. In response, a figure appeared on the opposite slope. He jogged to meet this person. Cahrin advanced to where a young pine tree pressed against the rocks. It offered little cover, but she could see what was transpiring.
The stranger Pa’hu spoke with looked small and frail next to him. Covered in a charcoal cloak his appearance was hidden.
The part of Cahrin watching through the eyes of her younger self sparked with anger. There he is, the man who ruined my life and later showed up in Yridark to do so again. If only I had killed him then.
Pa’hu and the hooded figure spoke in hushed tones, keeping their plans hidden even from Ked’coon.
The young Cahrin retreated. She could not get close enough to hear their words, and there was nothing more to gain from being as near as she was. But as she took her first few steps, it became apparent that her opportunity to escape was lost. Pa’hu and the man finished whatever they were discussing and disengaged. She could not make it back to cover without being seen. The nearest terrain was a knee-high outcropping of rock. She dove to it, flattening herself to the ground.
Her younger self prayed to the Owl God to watch over her position. She heaved out of exhaustion and trembled from fear. If Pa’hu discovered her he would be angry, perhaps even calling off their union. She waited as he passed close enough for her to hear the crunch of his boots against the snow. He would see her. She was sure of it. How could he not? Here was a man who could spot a white wolf at a hundred feet. Surely he would notice her ill-conceived hiding place.
Pa’hu strode forcefully by without a second glance.
A chill ran down Cahrin’s spine that the ice of the mountain could never match. He walked like a stranger, said words the mountains could not hear, and now did not notice what the rocks scarcely hid. This was not her Pa’hu. Who is this man?
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.