Chapter 23 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
The King of Broken Stones
The sun was drooping toward the horizon when the crumbling spires of Einor, the City of the Gods which once epitomized the wealth of all of Embia, came into view. Zeph brought his horse to a standstill and gazed upon a city he found far from awe-inspiring. The others continued at a more deliberate pace, as if they were approaching an ancient monument.
It had been two days since they had split up, and Zeph was dying from lack of conversation. He could do without food and water for a time, but this… He had begun to wish Kynar would overtake them. At least then he would have someone to speak with.
He had tried engaging with Raven several times, but tree shrubs offered better banter. And while Cahrin and Demetrius were trading stories like reunited kin, Zeph felt uncomfortable adding his voice without telling Demetrius about his treachery—and he didn’t dare do that with Cahrin present.
“Why is it called the City of the Gods?” he overheard Cahrin ask Demetrius.
“It was the first city to host a temple for each of the five main gods. That was back when there were those who still worshipped the God of the Dead—and of course before anyone had heard of The One. Though some claim its name comes from even earlier times when it was the grandest capital in all of Draza. Even the gods would have chosen to live in Einor, ‘where the gates were made of gold and the walls were powder white limestone.’” This last part, Demetrius spoke in a rhythmic melody.
Such words could hardly describe the city now. An unkempt and broken road led toward walls so caked in grime it was as if they were diseased.
Zeph gave out a low whistle. “I’d heard Einor had fallen on hard times, but I’ve seen shipwrecks in better condition.”
“And to think,” said Demetrius, “this city was once considered so imposing that during the Northerner Assault it was left alone.”
Cahrin met this last comment with a bitter retort. “What you call the Northerner Assault, my people speak of as the Blood of the Ghasiv Raid. Though the lies you use to describe it make it appear hardly the same.”
“Then please, grace us with the truth,” said Demetrius.
Cahrin’s eyes hardened as she retold the story. “Northerner warriors surrounded this city in such numbers that only the begging of the king kept them from razing it to the ground. Emissaries brought gifts and spoke of friendship. After much discussion, my people accepted the peace offerings, and the raiding party moved on to Camere. But once engaged in battle there, the king of Einor sent his men to attack the Northerners from behind. Caught between armies, our warriors had little chance. They were butchered without mercy. Thus we named this place Asormo, the two-faced city.”
“That was long ago.” Raven’s voice sounded distant, as if he was recalling a memory. “Now the city is nothing more than a rotting corpse lying in an abandoned graveyard.”
“You speak unkindly,” said Demetrius.
“All those who have served Azren will see their world crumble before them, your father’s included.” Raven nudged his horse ahead.
Zeph grabbed hold of Demetrius to keep a fight from ensuing.
“What is it with him?” asked Demetrius.
Zeph shrugged his shoulders, not sure himself. “I’d say he’ll warm up to you over time, but that’s the friendliest he’s been since I’ve known him.”
“He reminds me of a white wolf,” Cahrin said, “one moment hiding itself within a patch of snow and the next with its teeth clamped around the neck of its meal, all for the sake of survival. Though I suspect he is far more dangerous than any wolf.”
The road led to a large opening in the walls where city gates must have once stood. Zeph was surprised to find no guards to question their right of entry or warn the king of an approaching threat.
“I see now the major drawbacks of having gates of gold,” he said drily. If it had not been so tragic—or so true—the comment might have elicited a chuckle.
Conditions inside the city were no better. The buildings, made from the same stone as the outer walls, had turned a sickly grayish-brown from decades of neglect. Zeph tried to imagine how magnificent it might have looked, the smooth bone-white stone accented with blue-tiled roofs and spires shooting up a hundred feet into the sky.
Today, one of the spires was without its pinnacle, and another had been stripped down to the height of the outer wall. Stone appeared to be a rare commodity in Einor. Storefronts and even homes were missing sections of walls. In some areas, all that was left were ruins: a fallen door, the remnants of a fireplace, broken chairs.
The keep rose above the city center like flames above blackened wood, Einor’s last line of defense. Zeph found it daunting in the same way an ancient suit of armor could be. Before them the main avenue bent around a massive dried-out fountain, stripped of stone to its base and surrounded by the temples from which the city got its moniker.
The first stood simple and square, though the craftsmanship left no doubt it was the work of rogroms, masters of hewn rock. A giant spool was engraved above its door and two carved needles framed the entrance to the temple of Dela, goddess of destiny. While the structure itself was dirty, no stone had been scavenged here.
“I guess you don’t mess with the temple of a god,” Zeph said.
“Apparently not everyone feels that way,” replied Demetrius.
Next to Dela’s temple, a building with its entire roof made out of carved coins symbolizing Tymius, god of fortune, seemed to be missing its homage bowl, torn from its place atop a pedestal.
“Maybe when things are bad, you figure it can’t get any worse,” suggested Zeph.
“Could be,” said Demetrius. “Then again, they say Tymius rewards those who test their luck. Perhaps stealing the bowl would curry favor with the god.”
“Huh.” Zeph wished he had contrived such a ploy. “You might be onto something.”
He stumbled as he entered a quarry as big as any temple. Nearby, an ancient scavenger bent low, dragging his beard through a graveyard of stone scraps.
“Goznedra,” said Raven in his deep, expressionless tone.
Of course. What now was nothing more than rubble had once been the temple of the god of the dead.
The old man saw their approach and screeched. He held a skull above his head with an arm that looked like a brittle branch. “The Fallen God will rise again.”
Zeph realized the stone that crunched underfoot wasn’t stone at all but bits and pieces of skulls once used to build the temple.
They continued onward through streets nearly empty save for the professional scavenger plying his trade with a pickax and hand cart used to cull any stone bigger than a fist. Shockingly lacking was the presence of any peacekeepers. No wonder the streets were bare at night. Without guards, residents enjoyed little protection.
As they neared the keep, Zeph half expected to walk right in, unhindered. However, two armed sentries stood at the entrance with worn leather armor and unpolished scabbards at their hip. Though straight-backed and alert, they appeared startled by the group’s approach.
“What’s your business?” asked one with a brown, bushy mustache.
“We’ve been sent by the Council of the Alliance with a message for the king,” said Zeph, showing his medallion.
The guard examined the article closely. Either he knew the mark of the Alliance well enough to identify a fake, or he was curious what a genuine one looked like. After a few moments, he appeared satisfied. “This way.”
He led them through passageways lined with tapestries beneath vaulted ceilings. Colored swags spanned the corridors, which at one time might have appeared elegant. Now thick dust caked everything, and the spiderwebs were as numerous as the cracks in the stone floor. Zeph felt as if they were inside a mausoleum rather than a dwelling for the living.
They came to a halt not in front of any grand, antiquated entrance chamber, as he’d expected, but at an unassuming door nestled inside an alcove. The castle guard rapped twice. After no answer, he stuck his head into the room.
“M’lord, I have visitors from the Alliance to see you.”
A muffled voice came back, and the guard pushed the door open to reveal a mostly barren room, save for a pile of broken stones and a table where an older man in sleepwear—presumably the king—was seated. On the table in front of him was a small block of grayish-brown stone, similar to what Zeph had seen outside in the city, surrounded by broken pieces of various sizes. The king was fitting the pieces onto the block using a jar of pasty-white substance as filler.
The guard allowed the group to enter and stood by the entrance to keep watch. Zeph was appalled at the lack of security. They hadn’t even been asked for their weapons. Zeph could have cut the king down before anyone stopped him—and he was tempted to try just to see what might happen.
All of them except Raven knelt. His Majesty took no notice and continued to work on his stone puzzle, leaving the newcomers stranded on their knees. After a twenty count, Zeph cleared his throat. King Hybris placed a shard of rock into a broken section of stone and examined it critically. This time, Zeph made a guttural sound, still eliciting no reaction outside of a look from Cahrin to behave.
“My liege,” said the guard, coming to their rescue.
“Those from the Alliance…”
“Oh yes. Send them in,” he said, not taking his eyes away from the stone he was working on.
“They’re here, m’lord.”
The king looked up in surprise. “Oh, so they are. Please rise. I apologize for the lack of formalities. If I had known, we could have met in better quarters.”
They stood, awkwardly crowded in the small room.
Demetrius brushed stone dust from his knees and cleared his throat. “King Hybris, I am the son of your vassal, Lord Berrian, and a member of the Alliance. My companions and I are here to issue you a grave warning: Azren has returned.”
The king cackled. “Indeed.”
He went back to piecing together the block in front of him.
Demetrius attempted once more. “Your Majesty, did you not hear my words?”
“Young man, Azren had been in contact with me for some time now.”
“There you go.” King Hybris fitted a fragment into a shallow chasm of the stone. Turning his attention back to Demetrius, his eyes narrowed. “Is it for a lord’s son to ask that question of me?”
Demetrius lowered himself to a knee once more. “Apologies, my king. I took leave of my senses.”
“No apologies needed, young man.” King Hybris hid a broad smile in his silvery beard. Zeph thought he looked the type to make a popular ruler under better circumstances. “In answer to your query, I have no love of Azren. Yet he offers me a large sum of gold crowns—enough to rebuild my kingdom. And all he asks for in return is an ally in principle. I need not fight with him, just not against him.”
Demetrius rose at the king’s signal. “Have you considered asking the Four Realms for support?”
“There was a time when Einor served as the vestibule to the civilized part of Draza, and the other kingdoms would donate gold crowns to help with its defenses. But ever since Embia’s truce with Azren during the Great War, our status has declined to that of an outcast. The Five Realms have become the Four Realms, and we are left to wither away.”
Zeph had always gotten the impression that Embia was being punished and would someday be brought back into the fold. “Couldn’t you send an emissary to plead your case? I mean, if they knew Azren has returned, I’m sure they’d want to help.”
“The chasm between ‘want’ and ‘would’ is not easily crossed. With the Western Kingdoms marching on Nastadra, a third of Draza will be at war, and the other realms will be too busy taking sides to worry about anything else.”
“So you’ve made up your mind?”
“I have not. Not yet, anyway. It is true that my kingdom needs coin, and Azren is flush with it. But to make an alliance with the Afflicted One—he’s what got us into this mess in the first place. Now I’m sure all of you are tired from your travels. Bentar will find you rooms. Please join me in the Great Hall for dinner this evening.” The king made a dismissive motion, his eyes returning to the stone before him.
The group had already begun to follow the guard Bentar when Zeph paused.
“King Hybris, may I ask a question of Your Majesty?”
“Yes, yes,” said the king, distractedly.
“What exactly are you doing?”
“Oh, this.” He patted the slab in front of him. “As you’ve likely noticed, Einor has a shortage of these stones that once made our city grand. The supply still exists, of course, but we no longer have the means or the men necessary to retrieve it. So my people borrow or take from their neighbors. Some of the existing stones in Einor have fallen into disrepair, such as this one. But every stone counts. We must rehabilitate them so they can once more be put to good use. Each of us should do their part.”
As they left the room, Zeph mumbled to Cahrin that the king must be off his block. A quick elbow to the gut silenced him for the rest of the walk.
But his thoughts lingered. If King Hybris really was as mad as Demetrius said, was it safe to dine with him? Maybe he’d poison the lot of them and offer their corpses to Azren as a show of good faith. He supposed he’d find out soon enough. As Leopald, the Carc poison master, would say, when it comes to eating and drinking, be courteous and wait—better to go hungry than be first to take the bait.
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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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