Chapter 16 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
Cavern of the Undead
“Are you sure you told him that Zeph Greymoon is here?” Zeph asked the lord’s advisor for the third time. The advisor had a dull name, Trudor, and an irritating habit of twisting his black, pointy mustache between a thumb and index finger.
They had been asked to wait in a plush antechamber, only a gold-trimmed door and two well-armored guards away from the audience chamber in which Lord Berrian was apparently conducting business. Zeph had tried everything short of ripping Trudor’s mustache clean off to get past that door.
“As I informed you before,” said Trudor, “Lord Berrian is fully aware of your presence. He has asked that you wait here while he attends to an urgent matter.”
“I see your reputation precedes you.” Cahrin looked weary, but not too weary to needle him.
They had traveled north up the Thulon Road nearly to No Man’s Land before detouring to Duradune, a picturesque castle just inside the Embian border. All the while, Cahrin had grown gradually weaker, to the point that Zeph wondered if she might fall out of her saddle.
“Please,” Daen implored, “the lady is in need of a soft bed and warm food. Perhaps your lord would be so gracious as to provide this for her while we continue to wait.”
Trudor attempted a smile, but it was forced and awkward. “I assure you that once the lord is liberated from his engagement, he will attend to all matters.”
When good manners failed, Zeph was never afraid to explore other options. “Do you know what I think?”
“No,” said Trudor nervously as he went back to fingering the ends of his mustache. “And I would rather not.”
“I think my dear friend Lord Berrian is unaware of the direness of our situation.”
Trudor raised his head and nose accordingly. “I believe it is you who is unaware of my master’s situation.”
Enough of this. Turning away from Trudor, Zeph marched resolutely toward the guards who blocked passage through the gold-trimmed door.
“Zeph . . .” said Daen.
Cahrin latched onto Daen for support. Her condition was deteriorating by the moment.
Trudor stood smugly by, waiting for Zeph to be put in his place.
Zeph’s eyes darted back and forth as he assessed his options. Relieved of his weapons at the gates, it would be down to fisticuffs or a mad dash through the door. Either option seemed painful. Despite Etta’s careful tending of his wounds, days on the road had left his side still tender. He closed in, curling his fingers into a ball, his birthmarked thumb tucked below his knuckles. The guards rested their gauntlets on sword pommels.
The gold-trimmed door burst open and Lord Berrian strode out with graying dark, wavy hair bouncing off his shoulders.
“Zeph, it’s so good to see you. Welcome all of you to Duradune.” He wore a cheerful expression with an elaborately decorated doublet and a ruffled white shirt.
“Lord Berrian.” Zeph turned his advance into a grand bow, which the lord waved away modestly.
The lord glanced around the room before pausing at Cahrin. “Oh my, what do we have here?”
“One of my companions is recovering from injury. I was wondering if you might offer us some of your hospitality.”
“Of course.” Lord Berrian approached Cahrin. “My apologies for the wait. I was unaware of the direness of your situation.”
Zeph shot Trudor an I-told-you-so glance.
“Trudor, please see to the Northerner.” The tinge of bias in the lord’s voice was hard to miss.
“Her name’s Cahrin,” interjected Zeph said.
“Of course. Put Cahrin in the Allequin room, and have Maria watch over her. As far as our other guests, make sure they are well rested and fed.” Lord Berrian turned to Zeph once more. “I’m afraid I’ll be indisposed for the next two days, but on the following evening, we will feast like the richest of kings.”
“Your generosity is almost as boundless as your love of cheese.”
“Almost,” agreed the lord.
“Thank you for your kindness,” said Daen.
Lord Berrian’s brow furrowed. “Have we met before?”
“Not in my recollection.” Daen gave a tentative smile. “I have familiar eyes, I am told.”
“Ah, that must be it.” With a fleeting glance, he breezed back through the gold-trimmed door and out of sight.
After ensuring Cahrin was receiving proper care, Daen spent the remainder of the day resting and filling himself with food that put his road rations to shame. Every meal was a delicacy, each dish more tantalizing than the last.
By the following morning, Cahrin’s strength had returned, as had her biting sense of humor. After he left her, Daen stopped by Lord Berrian’s library to borrow a book about the Great War. A few pages in, he found a map of Draza with depictions of Azren’s allies in their homelands: spindly red kobolds roaming the Blighted Lands, Northerners in their furs atop the Glasshorn Mountains, ashen-skinned nawroms set inside Riverrock Crag, and the sharp-featured dogar southwest of No Man’s Land.
The rest of the book contained more details than Daen cared to explore from troop movements to names of generals and specific acts of bravery. What it lacked was information on Azren himself. Azren’s mysterious ascension had caught the Realms by surprise and was a primary reason the Alliance had been formed.
Daen had been reading for many hours when he heard a knock at the door. “Come in.”
The door slid open, followed by the sounds of bare feet padding away.
“Who goes there?”
He hurried to the hallway to catch a glimpse of feminine features and red hair going around a corner, reminding him very much of Elise. He took off after her, losing himself amidst widening hallways that twisted into one another. The walls became rough. He had not been in this part of the castle before. There she was again, nymph-like, flitting in and out of view, never in focus. But still, the resemblance was uncanny.
Mounted torches grew sparser in number as the corridor stretched onward. He passed several broken barrels; blood stained the ground. The stone beneath his feet had turned to dirt and rock. Something was familiar about all of this, but he couldn’t place his finger on it.
A putrid scent hit him as the corridor made a hairpin turn, like the onslaught of salt as one approaches the Nalescian coastline. Grunts and moans escaped the darkness ahead of him.
It was obvious now. He chided himself for not recognizing the telltale signs before. He reached instinctively for his axe and came up empty-handed; he had relinquished it when they entered the castle. Settling for a slab of wood lying on the ground—likely at one time part of a barrel—he swung it experimentally.
Several forms emerged from the shroud of darkness ahead. Rotting flesh dripped from bone, and soulless eyes peered through decomposed faces. They shambled toward him, moaning through lips missing chunks of flesh: the undead, raised bodies of the once living doing the bidding of the necromancer who summoned them.
One of the creatures held a sword. A second carried a barrel over its head. A final pair shambled to the front. The nearest reached for Daen with hands that looked more like claws with long, twisted fingernails. Daen slammed his newly acquired piece of wood into its torso, sending the creature into its neighbor with a crunch. The two fell in a tangled heap.
The thing about undead is they were light and easy to cast about, their only substance being bones and bits of flesh.
He ducked a rusty sword and returned a bone-cracking uppercut just as a barrel crashed down onto his head with a blinding flash. For a moment he was dazed, stumbling backward and barely keeping his feet. When his vision cleared, another undead creature was lurching toward him, clearly intent on sinking its rotting teeth into his flesh.
He wrapped his fingers around the creature’s ribs and flung it. But the one with the sword was back, so close its rancid smell was sickening. He kicked at its kneecap, dropping it to the ground, and smashed its head in with his slab of wood.
Pain erupted as broken nails clutched at his shoulder. A backhand sent the creature flailing. Another of its brethren yanked at his leg, and he shook out of its grip with a frustrated groan. He would give them one thing: they were persistent.
“Hurry up already. We don’t have much time.”
Elise? She stood in full view with her flaming red hair, innocent face, and green eyes that danced like the flames of a candle. She was exactly how he remembered her, just a girl eighteen years young.
His mind raced. She cannot be here. Elise is dead.
With a repeated boot to the pesky corpse below him and a mighty swing that shattered the shoulder of another, he was beginning to gain the upper hand when a new wave of creatures tore through the darkness with a multitude of weapons and horrible moans.
“Oh, c’mon now!” shouted Elise, losing patience with his skirmish. She stamped her feet with such vehemence that her lucky charm, a clear green stone she wore around her neck, bounced up and down. “Don’t you know where we are?”
She snapped her fingers, and the undead disappeared like shadows denied of light.
He knew where they were indeed, and it wasn’t Lord Berrian’s castle. The cavern, the undead—everything was the same as it had been the day they had found her. He still remembered her voice calling out to him, begging to be saved. He had been too late.
“How are you here?” he asked at last.
“You’re the one that’s here, you big oaf.”
“What are you speaking of?”
“I’m dead. I’m not much of anywhere—or maybe I’m everywhere.” She gave the girlish laugh he remembered well.
“You make no more sense dead than you did alive.”
“And you’re as blind as you’ve always been. Bet you can’t see this.” She stuck out her tongue as she leapfrogged a broken barrel streaked red with blood.
He yanked at his hair. “This is not happening.”
She flashed him an impish smile and made her way over to him. “Now you’re talking. I was starting to think that boulder over there is less dense than you.”
“So this is just my imagination?”
“It’s more like a memory.”
Some memory. “Then how are you here?”
“You already asked that question. You should be asking why you’re here.”
A pounding sound emanated from the walls around them, followed by a muffled voice speaking something he couldn’t quite make out. Daen spun about, unsure of its source.
“That’s my cue,” she said with a sigh. “Until next time, my love.”
Elise put a finger to her mouth, and the scene crumbled away into darkness. He was left with only the pounding sound and someone calling to him.
“Is anyone in there?”
Where is it coming from?
He lifted his head abruptly. He was at his desk. He must have drifted off to sleep. The candle had burned low, and The Great War Chronicles, Volume 1 lay open before him.
The knock at the door sounded again.
“Come in,” he called hoarsely. He could not shake that feeling when one thought interrupts another and the first thought disappears into the ether
A servant girl entered, quite young—maybe Elise’s age when she and Daen had first joined the Alliance.
“Sir, I’ve come for your clothes.”
He looked up quizzically, and she blushed. “I mean to wash any dirty garments you might have.”
“One moment,” he said with a beleaguered grin. He dumped his backpack onto the stone floor. Dirt and sweat-stained garments spilled out along with various odds and ends. A leather-bound book caught his eye. The memories just kept coming
He gathered up the clothes and handed them to the servant girl. When she had left the room, he picked up the book, bending it back and forth in his hands. Its cover was aged, with a hole near the center where a dagger had pierced it. He flipped through the pages and stopped at the last written page, scribed just one day after Elise’s death. The entry was incomplete; the words blurred halfway down the page, and then the writing ceased altogether. He had not written in it since.
But here he was, wide awake with nothing to do. He had a strong desire to write something, anything. He skipped over a few pages from the last entry to mark the passage of time and put quill to page.
17th Night of Spring, Forty Years since the Great War
Journal Entry 253
Seeing Zeph and Cahrin again has brought back a rush of memories. Not all of them pleasant. Zeph accused me of running away when I left the Alliance, and I cannot wholeheartedly deny it. While the Council’s corruption played a part, it was the way I left that gave truth to his words. I did not wish to see Cahrin, Sel, Copius, or even Zeph anymore. They would just be reminders of Elise.
Recently I have become aware how lost I have been these years, without strong ties to anyone. Since our reunion, I feel like things are back to normal, back to how they should be. Yet there is a foreboding about it as well.
The last time I was with these same companions, something sinister descended upon Draza. It is as if one thing attracts the other. Maybe I am being cynical, or perhaps my overindulgent imagination is affecting me. Regardless, I cannot keep the old Carc’s words out of my head:
“Stay the path at your own risk, for those who oppose Azren become the targets of his aim.”
He closed the journal firmly. Writing always lent him perspective on the past and fortitude for what lay ahead. Extinguishing the lone candle, he crawled into his bed, with thoughts of Elise and the undead still lingering. How real it had seemed; almost as if he had been transported to another time and not just dreaming it. If only he had been.
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Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books.
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