It had been a day and a half since they had left Yridark, and Daen still had no idea where they were going.
Armed guards had chased them from the city. Rest periods were short and infrequent, and moods were less than cheerful. Exhaustion compounded worry—and there was plenty to be worried about. Foremost was Cahrin, who was still unresponsive, her breath getting shallower by the hour.
They juggled horses to keep the mounts fresh, with either him or Zeph seated behind Cahrin allowing the other horse to be unburdened. As they entered the foothills of the Stepping Stones, Daen was able to see for many leagues behind them and determine they had left any pursuers far behind.
They traveled mostly in silence. Zeph attempted a few conversations, but Daen brushed him off. Though he didn’t want to admit it, he had been harboring more than a little guilt. He should have cleared the way for Cahrin and Zeph, not taken off after the man in gray like some honor-bound knight. Now that escape lie within their grasp, the weight of his decision began to lift from his shoulders.
He broke the silence. “Tell me, Zeph. Where exactly are you taking us?”
“Let’s just say it’s where I grew up.” Zeph kept one hand on the reins and the other wrapped around Cahrin’s collapsed form.
“Hmm.” Daen stroked his chin.
“What do you mean by ‘hmm’?”
“It occurred to me that you have never spoken much about your youth.”
“If you must know, that’s because it’s forbidden.”
“Forbidden to even talk about it?” He didn’t like the sound of that one bit. “Then what is the chance your people are going to take kindly to our visiting?”
Zeph mumbled a reply.
“What was that?”
“I said no chance whatsoever.”
“Very reassuring, Zeph. Very reassuring.” He couldn’t conceal his sarcasm. After all, they were gambling Cahrin’s life—maybe all of their lives—on something Zeph himself admitted had no chance of going well. “Just tell me this: Were you planning on revealing this brilliant plan of yours before or after we are killed for trespassing?”
“Hey, I’m not the only one keeping secrets.” Zeph’s eyes narrowed. “Care to explain why Nalescian soldiers were at your inn?”
“As I have always maintained, I left Nalesc on less than friendly terms.”
“Yeah, but I thought it was a family disagreement, not a warrant for—what in Dela’s loom?” Zeph started so strongly he almost fell off his horse.
Daen trotted his horse over for a closer look.
Atop Cahrin’s shoulder sprawled a small, hairless creature covered in folds of pink skin. It pressed its bulging belly against her while licking her neck. Whatever it was, the newcomer was a welcome distraction from Zeph’s line of questioning.
“Cute little fella.”
“Cute?” Zeph frowned. “It reminds me of one of those dolls the kobold witches keep. And do you see those claws? I don’t like those things so close to Cahrin’s neck.”
“Relax, Zeph. From the looks of it, the creature appears to be fond of Cahrin. I believe she has been keeping it with her—a pet of some sort. I hear summoners do that type of thing.” Daen eyed it curiously. “Perhaps you should try giving it some food.”
It stopped licking Cahrin and perked up at his suggestion. It had obviously had some dealings with that word before. Zeph dipped into his pack for some dried meat and dangled it in the air. Instantly the creature sprang up and ripped the meat free.
Zeph snatched his hand back, his thumb bearing a red claw mark. “You see that? It almost took off my finger. I think it’s your turn to take Cahrin—and this thing.”
Daen switched to the unburdened horse and came up beside Zeph. The pink creature seemed oblivious to the hand-off, chomping away, meat wedged between jagged teeth as they moved Cahrin to the other mount.
“Your actions never cease to amaze me, Zeph. Without a care, you would enter battle against a number of formidable foes. Run into one poor, hungry creature, and you nearly soil your breeches.”
Zeph answered with a snort, mumbling something under his breath about how Daen should try feeding it.
Several more hours of riding brought them to a dead end, sheer cliffs towering above them. The rock itself was impressive, some thirty humans in height with colors running from peach to orange to red. Daen thought it might have been climbable despite its smooth surface had it not curled in upon itself at the lip.
He stared, eyes glued to the beauty of the rock. “So where do we go from here?”
When there was no answer, he glanced about. Zeph had disappeared.
“This way,” called an echoing voice from his left.
Running his hands along the cliff face, he found an opening. It had always been there, but the waves of color in the rock had played tricks on his eyes. The pass was not much wider than his shoulders and more defensible than the Iron Citadel of Paquin. An invading army would be forced to advance single file, while archers could shoot from above and pick them off one by one. Once the defenders had incapacitated enough soldiers, their bodies would need to be cleared before the invading army could proceed, all while the archers continued to rain down their arrows.
They progressed slowly through the pass, the bands of colors in the rock hiding every turn until they were upon it. It was impossible to see how much farther they had to go or even what direction they were proceeding. Only a sliver of sky was visible from their vantage point.
After a few hours, the top of the canyon had dwindled to half its height. If it continued receding at its present pace, Daen estimated they would be out of the pass before long, which was just as well. He did not want to be navigating these pathways after dark.
They were scraping through a particularly narrow section when a voice called from above. “Halt.”
A longbow pointed down at them with an arrow nocked. They couldn’t be any more vulnerable.
Zeph stopped the horses, careful not to jostle Cahrin. “Kagin, my friend, didn’t think you’d still be here.”
The man lowered his bow. “Look what Dela wove us today. Who’s that with you?” Daen heard a measure of concern in his voice.
“These are friends of mine. Daen, meet Kagin. You two have something in common: an excruciating amount of time spent on sentry duty. My other friend is hurt. I thought maybe Etta could help.”
“You shouldn’t have brought them here, Zeph.”
“Just take me to Etta. That’s all I ask. And please avoid Darseer Rolt. That one is mean and spiteful and never did like me much. He’s liable to have my friends killed on the spot for using the entrance—and me for showing it to them. If you have to tell someone, make it Darseer Caspar. He’s as gentle as the sprinkling rain on an autumn morning.”
The silhouette of another came to stand next to Kagin. By the raised shoulders and angular posture, this one looked angry. “The message to Darseer Caspar will have to wait.”
“Darseer Rolt. I didn’t mean—”
The darseer’s voice cut the air like a sharpened dagger. “Do not breathe in what has already been spoken. Your words betray your heart, though I cannot deny their truth. To the dull, my actions may appear spiteful—and I do not like you much.”
Zeph hung his head as the darseer continued his chastisement.
“Unfortunately it is not for me to decide your fate. I relinquished that task long ago. But I assume even one as ‘gentle as the sprinkling rain on an autumn morning’ could find a fitting punishment for such a grave matter, don’t you think?”
“Yes, Darseer,” was all Zeph managed.
They continued to push through the pass, catching glimpses of the sentries above as they went.
“How much trouble are we in?” whispered Daen.
“It depends on how you define trouble,” Zeph said.
“Will we be killed as you said?”
“Only Dela knows for sure. Good thing it’s not up to Darseer Rolt, or they’d already be preparing our bodies for burial.”
Daen couldn’t help thinking how Cahrin’s pale and lifeless form indeed looked ready for burial. “Let us reach this healer you mentioned. Should things turn sour, we can always attempt escape later on.”
“Sure, we’ll walk right on past the sentries.”
“I thought you were trained in subterfuge.”
“Trained, maybe—but Darseer Rolt is the head of Clandestine School. No one knows more about the art of deception than him. Even if we did manage to escape, we’d be looking over our shoulders until the day we died. Which would be soon.”
“You have a high regard for your mentor.”
Zeph’s face twisted in protest. “Mentor? Whatever that man said, I did the opposite.”
“Which explains his affection for you.”
“All I’m saying is that Darseer Rolt has the ability and fortitude to hide undetected beneath a rotting corpse—something he proved during my Trials.”
And here I thought the sentinels of Nalesc had severe training exercises. “Then we better hope it does not come to that.”
Over the next hour, the canyon’s walls petered to waist height. Waiting at its end were Kagin and Darseer Rolt. They were both in mustard pants and tunics, covered by lightweight tan cloaks. Up close, Daen noticed a blue tattoo on their cheeks depicting an earthworm—the marking of the Carcs, zealot worshippers of Dela, goddess of destiny. As a youth, he had feared the secretive cult. Some said that the Carcs had a keen interest in children who could be immersed in their ways, especially children who were unwanted or had no family of their own. Daen remembered nightmares, likely brought on by the threat commonplace among parents: behave, or you will be given to the Carcs.
If this was Zeph’s home, he must be a Carc as well. All this time, and Daen had never known, never guessed. He had always pictured the Carcs as darkly dressed strangers bringing with them a sense of foreboding. Zeph neither matched the demeanor nor bore the tattoo. Was he hiding his heritage to escape discrimination? Or for some less than virtuous reason, perhaps to infiltrate the Alliance itself?
“I see you have one that is injured,” said Darseer Rolt. He made a cursory examination of Cahrin. Her pink companion must have gone back into hiding beneath her cloak.
“It’s why I came here,” said Zeph.
Darseer Rolt held up a staying hand as if to say he had heard all the excuses before. “It does not change what you have done.”
“I will accept whatever my punishment, but first I need to get her to Etta’s.”
“What you do is of no consequence. Her thread has already been woven to its final length, or have you forgotten that?”
“I was taught that the threads reflect actions that are preordained. She will live because I am taking her to Etta’s, because you will allow me to do so, and because Etta has great skill.”
“Or she’ll die, regardless.”
“There’s only one way to find out,” Zeph concluded.
The logic behind the exchange made Daen’s head spin, but Darseer Rolt conceded the point and led them in the direction of a giant slab of rock that had splintered off from the canyon. The three visitors remained mounted. Kagin held the reins of the horse that carried Zeph and Cahrin. Darseer Rolt kept a quick pace ahead of them on foot.
“So how is it on the outside?” Kagin asked.
Darseer Rolt shot Kagin a disapproving glance that silenced the young Carc. When he turned back around, Zeph and Kagin exchanged hand gestures in a more discreet conversation. After several minutes of this, Darseer Rolt cleared his throat loudly before speaking. “I see what the sky sees and hear what the wind hears. Kagin, you will clean what the jayhawks leave if this nonsense does not stop.”
Daen stifled a laugh. He didn’t care what Zeph said, Darseer Rolt had a sense of humor.
Kagin made a final sign to Zeph before focusing his attention up ahead. As they neared the giant rock formation, its magnificence became more evident. Past its transfixing colors, they could see the outer reaches of a community, scores of small, squat residences, each built from the same rock as the pass. Two towering structures dominated the center of town. One was obviously a house of worship, with tall arches and a carving of a giant spool of thread—the symbol of Dela. The man-hours to construct all these buildings out of stone must have been enormous.
“I worked on several of the houses,” said Zeph proudly. “Even helped out on the remodeling of the Adalhelm.”
Zeph pointed to the large building next to the church. It was just as wide but taller and not as ornate. “Our training facility.”
“Outside of weapons and skills training, they also teach discipline at the Adalhelm,” added Darseer Rolt.
“I take it Zeph did not attend those classes,” said Daen.
“Not true,” Zeph said. “As Darseer Rolt will attest, I had more disciplining than any of my schoolmates, probably more than the lot of them put together.”
“And still, he did not learn,” said the darseer. “Answer me this, Zeph. What is the first rule of Clandestine School?”
“The first rule? Um, that would be . . . fight as if your weapon is sharp, your cause is true, and your thread is long.”
Darseer Rolt stopped in midstride abruptly causing Zeph’s horse to whinny in surprise. “The first rule is to expect the unexpected. But I am glad to hear you still remember the second rule. And now we have reached our destination.”
They had arrived at a house that appeared to Daen much like any other they had passed: boxlike, with one opening for an entrance and another for a window.
Zeph dismounted as Darseer Rolt called out. Shortly after, a heavyset woman with thick eyebrows and graying hair emergedShe gave the darseer a deferential nod and formal greeting before burying Zeph in a giant embrace.
“My motilio,” she said affectionately. “You came home.”
“Etta. It’s good to see you.” Zeph extricated himself from the hug.
“After nearly five years, is that all you can say?” Etta stepped back, hands on her hip. “Who fed you mother’s milk when you were just a handsome babe?”
Zeph’s face reddened a little. “I am truly grateful, Granddam, for everything.”
“Oh my.” Etta looked past Zeph at Cahrin’s unconscious form. “What have we here?”
“I was hoping you could tell us, Granddam. She has been like this ever since performing a summoning two days ago.”
“She is not well. Not well at all.” Etta clucked. She pointed a finger at Daen. “You, bring her inside. I will start some herbs brewing.” She scurried back into the house, the reunion with Zeph all but forgotten.
Zeph had hoped to stay with Cahrin and Daen to get them settled in while making sure Darseer Rolt did not have them killed. But apparently his presence was required at the Adalhelm immediately—something about the serious nature of his actions
Led through streets he knew so well, he was surprised to see how few faces he recognized. It was like returning to your childhood house to find another family had moved in. Most were young and eager to avoid eye contact with Darseer Rolt. Some things never change.
Zeph studied each passerby closely for a Greymoon resemblance. The Carcs he’d grown up with had become his brothers and sisters, but he hoped someday to discover his own flesh and blood. His people came upon their recruits in mysterious ways; even Zeph’s own induction was hidden from him. Abandoned, left for dead, or taken from his mother’s arms, he had never been told.
Glancing over at the darseer, he noted a rare smile—self-satisfied, like a cat who’d stolen its dinner. He was looking forward to Zeph’s impending punishment.
As they approached the Adalhelm, Zeph’s skin prickled with excitement. Once he was inside the walls of the training facility, it was as if he’d never left. He strode across the same olive rug; he could tell it was the same one because he saw the tear he’d caused when horsing around with a schoolmate—an accident he’d paid dearly for. At every turn were framed lessons serving as constant reinforcements of their teachings.
No thread is more important than another was scratched on a worn parchment, reputed to be the handiwork of one of the original darseers. Next came the oft-recited Those who presume to know another’s end may soon meet their own. The truth of these words was so much more self-evident now than when he was growing up.
He continued along the familiar stone hallways comprised of giant blocks interspaced with floor-to-ceiling openings. It gave him the feeling he was outdoors, rather than inside an enclosed structure. The sun poked through, its position revealing it was late afternoon. The Carc students would soon congregate in the dining hall. Meals were taken thrice daily, the first at dawn, after which training would begin. They were long days. By their end, all anyone could think about was sleep. Vivid in Zeph’s memories was being woken seemingly moments after he had closed his eyes, already a new dawn. He also remembered good times with friends, special snacks on the Day of the Threads, and rare talks with Darseer Caspar.
He missed it.
So caught up was he in reminiscing about the past that it took him a moment to realize they had halted in one of the Adalhelm prayer rooms. A long window spanned three sides of the barren room, and before them stood Darseer Caspar.
In his presence, Zeph felt like nothing more than a schoolboy again. As a rule, Darseer Caspar didn’t bother with disciplinary actions. That task fell to the most senior of each school of specialization. For Zeph, that was Darseer Rolt, whose heavy hand he had become accustomed to over the years. On those rare occasions when the attention of Darseer Caspar was required, Zeph always felt shame and guilt. He knew the opportunities he had been afforded here were indirectly due to Darseer Caspar, the eldest and one of the original Carcs to dwell in this valley. They all owed him a great debt.
The darseer appeared older than when Zeph had last seen him. His sun-etched face was more grizzled, his white hair had thinned, and his hands had withered. But his back was straight, and he spoke with a voice unhindered by age.
“I had not thought to find you again so soon,” he said in a brooding tone. He seemed to be studying Zeph, though this was impossible. His eye sockets had been empty for as long as Zeph could remember.
“Neither did I, Darseer,” he acknowledged, his head cast downward, unable to meet the sightless gaze of the ancient Carc.
“May I ask why you have brought outsiders to us?”
“One of my companions is dying. She needs a healer. I couldn’t think of anywhere else to take her. That’s what home is for, isn’t it? To turn to in dire times.”
“Home is much more than that. It is the kernel of our souls. No matter where you go or how long you live, you cannot escape the loom where your thread began.”
The truth of those words resonated within Zeph, and yet he was not so sure his soul belonged forever in this valley. There was another home that called to him. He did not know from where, but he was sure he would someday find it.
Darseer Caspar continued. “While I cannot fault your intentions, this is nevertheless a most serious offense. Our people’s very existence depends on our anonymity.”
“But Darseer,” Zeph reasoned, “wouldn’t Dela already have it in the threads if, you know . . . if our people were to be wiped out because of this?”
Darseer Rolt gave Zeph a reproachful look. “It is not for you to interpret the ways of Dela.”
“The boy is right.” Darseer Caspar creased his thin lips upwards. “It is well known that Dela marks each and every one of our deaths by the length of our threads. Yet do not confuse this with omniscience. The details of our lives are our own. Dela cannot predict your next action any more than whether we will be run off our land should our presence be revealed.”
“My friends won’t tell anyone,” said Zeph. “You have my word on that.”
“Do you think you are the only one who knows an outsider who can keep our secret?”
Zeph thought for a moment before responding. “No, Darseer.”
“No indeed. If we allowed this information to be passed on without punishment, soon dozens of outsiders would gain the confidence of trusting Carcs, and those dozens would tell other honorable souls, and so on. Before you knew it, a single case of wrong judgment or overheard conversation could lead to our exposure.”
“I didn’t think about it like that. I was wrong to bring them here.”
“Yes, you were,” agreed Darseer Caspar. “But as it is said, you cannot give a skinned fox back its coat. So I ask you, Zeph, what shall we do with you?”
One thing Zeph had always admired about Darseer Caspar was the way he involved others in the decision-making process. In Zeph’s own experience, the discipline he received from Darseer Caspar seemed fitting to the deed. This was in direct contrast to Darseer Rolt, who forced punishment upon unwilling subjects like foul medicine for their own good.
“I—I am at a loss. Perhaps lashings will show others the errors of my way.”
Darseer Caspar crinkled his already raisin-like face in thought. “Darseer Rolt, what do you say?”
“This is a most serious crime and thus should be handled in the strictest manner. The only fitting punishment I see is the death of the offender and his companions.”
Zeph’s heart sank. Death to them all? That was harsh even for Darseer Rolt.
“That is one possibility,” said Darseer Caspar. He turned to stare out the long window directly toward the sun. “It may even be a probable outcome. Yet my humble musings lead me to believe that Dela wove a long and purposeful thread for this man.”
Darseer Rolt remained impassive. “If he dies today, Dela spun it so.”
“Of that there can be no doubt.” Darseer Caspar nodded. “And while your words are no less sensible than ever, Darseer Rolt, why does my mind wander to another punishment? Is it perhaps the workings of Dela herself?”
“The wonders of the goddess never cease to amaze,” replied Darseer Rolt. “Yet one must be careful that it is truly Dela’s will and not one’s own heart that is the guide.”
“Since my heart recoils at what I am about to suggest, I can only conclude it is something divine that pushes it upon me.” Darseer Caspar paused, his face strained, as if the words he was about to speak were clawing themselves out. “The punishment for this young man will be to walk the Path of Thirty Blades.”
Zeph sucked in a quick breath. Even Darseer Rolt appeared to be surprised. “This has not been performed in over fifty years.”
“Yes, but it is the truest way to discovery. Should he survive, there will be little doubt that his thread continues.” The elder darseer’s empty sockets bore into Zeph. “Will you agree to walk the Path of Thirty Blades?”
“Yes, Darseer—yes, I will,” he replied eagerly, feeling the surge of anticipation that often accompanies unknown danger. It was the same sensation he had before entering the dwelling of an intended victim, never sure what surprises might wait around the corner.
“If you succeed, your friends have three nights to stay in our valley. But understand that if you should fall, the rest of your companions will fall with you.”
The spark of euphoria welling up inside him was extinguished. It was one thing to test the length of his own thread, but he hated to think that Cahrin and Daen might also be at risk. Of course, it made sense from the Carc perspective. A friend of Zeph’s might not take kindly to his death. Anger could easily turn to revenge.
“I understand,” he said gravely.
“And you.” Darseer Caspar turned to Darseer Rolt. “Do you agree this to be a fair and fitting punishment?”
“I do,” returned Darseer Rolt.
“Then ring the bell and call forth the walk. We will need thirty warriors to proceed. And proceed we will.”
Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and YA Books Central. 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,