Chapter 33 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
It seemed like a good idea at the time, launching his throwing daggers at the troll. Then again, when the Threshers had first appeared, his grand escape plan had involved swinging on a chandelier—he’d always wanted to do that. But on further reflection, the chandelier above them looked like it was having trouble carrying candles, much less the weight of a person.
As he watched the beast charge at him full bore with several daggers barely embedded in its tough skin, he realized this strategy followed along those same lines: short on contemplation, long on ramifications.
His next salvo left a blade in its right shoulder and two hilts protruding from its chest. As he’d explained the previous evening to the queen, it was not easy to kill someone—or something—by impaling it through the heart.
Its injuries did not slow the creature. If anything, it came at him even faster than before. Gathering three more blades in each hand, he crouched with his back against an undamaged portion of the railing, the last barrier before a drop to the atrium below. The troll would be on top of him before he could draw more.
My thread continues, nothing can change that, he reminded himself—not even a toll. So why in Dela’s loom do my knees want to collapse as if they’re made of sand.
The troll was just over two lengths away when he flung the daggers with all the strength he could muster. Blades ravaged its already injured leg, causing it to give way midstride. The troll kept advancing, one leg down, the rest of its body skidding with its momentum. Zeph leapt sideways, but the creature managed to tear leather and skin before slamming through the railing and tumbling to the atrium below.
Zeph staggered to the edge and looked over the shattered railing. Kreeb was scrunched over the sprawled troll in confusion, like a child who’d lost his favorite toy. Breezing down the stairs came Raven, swords drawn and closing on Kreeb when a blanket of darkness consumed the atrium.
Zeph strained for clues on what was going on below, but it was impossible to see. All sound, even the clopping of Raven’s boots, had evaporated.
And then the blackness dissipated like a mist, revealing Raven looking about in confusion. Kreeb had gone missing, and the troll as well.
Zeph spotted the creature. “Behind the crate!” he hollered down.
Raven spun around.
Bloodied, with an arm twisted unnaturally and a leg dragging behind, the troll hobbled toward him. Even in its ragged condition, it was a loathsome monstrosity, a hunter and a killer, never something to be taken lightly. Raven strode forward to meet it.
A swipe from the troll’s usable arm was met with steel. Skin split from shoulder to elbow. Zeph winced at the creature’s tortured screech. Its second attack was rebuffed with more stabbing. As the troll became more cautious, Raven turned into the aggressor. His blades sliced in and out, drawing blood with every merciless attack. The creature stumbled backward from Raven’s cold, calculated onslaught.
He doesn’t want to kill it—not yet. It looked as if Raven was carving it up on purpose, sending a message to its master.
A dozen slashes and thrusts later and the creature was more red than green. The troll had become desperate. Its attacks grew reckless as its injuries mounted. The opportunity to finish its prey was running out. One arm was useless and the other would soon be. It barely stood upright. The troll lurched forward head first. Raven’s blade caught the base of its neck in a glancing blow before their foreheads collided. Raven swayed. A long-nailed claw grabbed a fistful of cloak and swung outward, smashing Raven against the wooden wall of a closed shop. His entire body shuddered with the impact, and his swords fell from his grasp. The troll gave a pealing cry and began to batter Raven against the wall again and again.
He was done for. Finished. Unless… Zeph drew Venytier.
Raven’s body slammed into the wall for a fourth time as Venytier spun through the air. The point of the dagger arced toward the troll gracefully before sinking into its upper shoulder. The wound was not fatal, but the troll dropped Raven’s limp body and came after Zeph. It pulled itself up onto the crate.
Zeph gave it everything he had, peppering its shoulders and chest with throwing daggers. A few bounced off its thick-skulled head as it climbed to the landing. The troll stumbled toward him, reeking of body odor and blood. Zeph gripped two daggers in each hand—his last. Then shoved the twin blades forward.
Steel delved into guts. The troll convulsed, and for a moment Zeph thought it was over. A hardened forearm came slinging out, catching him below the chin and snapping his head backward.
The last thing he saw was a glimpse of the chandelier—oh, what good times we’ll miss—as his feet left the ground and his shoulder blades crashed against hard stone.
King Hybris lie unmoving in shock. He mumbled occasionally as Cahrin tended his wounds. They were deep, and anything she used to stanch the bleeding became soaked through in a matter of moments.
She had thought the battle long over when she saw the troll climb back to the landing.
What if it comes to finish what it started? She relieved one of the dead Threshers of his crossbow. By the time she had it loaded, the troll was howling in victory over the crumpled form of Zeph. She sent a bolt of steel piercing its side, transforming its howl into a cry. It didn’t last long. Already it was coming, dragging its useless leg behind, unrelenting, its appetite for murder instinctive.
She fired another bolt, this one puncturing its midsection. It too failed to slow the manic step and drag of approaching death. She attempted to load a third bolt before throwing the crossbow down in futility. It would be too late. A summoning was out of the question as well. She had forgone the time needed for magic to bandage the king and must now rely on her hunting knife to defend herself. Against a troll, it was nothing but a dull piece of steel.
“I’ve fought uoko meaner than you,” she hollered, standing protectively in front of the king. It was stupid to die this way, protecting a ghasiv, and so close to fulfilling her grim oath. But she had made her choice all the same.
A flash of pink blurred past, and then she saw tiny claws shredding the troll’s eyes and face. The troll wagged its head. Its massive hand swept Norweegee aside, sending the little guy skittering through the Great Hall.
From behind Cahrin came another form, jerking forward unevenly. It was Demetrius, white-faced and bloodied. How could he even be alive, much less still standing? He carried a broadsword before him in both hands as if it was a dousing rod.
Stumbling past her, he thrust awkwardly at the troll, somehow connecting to its bowels. It shrieked in anguish. Demetrius held his ground, grinning foolishly. Cahrin wanted to turn away, but she was locked onto the grim scene as the troll’s fist cracked the young lord’s skull, dropping him for good. Blood was everywhere: leaking from the troll, covering Demetrius, all over the wall, and on the floor.
Cahrin dropped her knife and sprinted at the troll. It was yanking a hunk of flesh from Demetrius when she wrapped her fingers around the hilt of the embedded broadsword and gave a vigorous thrust. Deeper the blade drove, and the troll responded with a roar.
Claws slashed her back. The pain was enormous, but she was not eviscerated—this was not the same creature that started the night.
She put her weight into it the blade, twisting and stabbing forward. The roar still on the creature’s lips petered out, and with it went the troll’s body, finally succumbing to the injuries it had endured. It thrashed around on the stone floor, clawing at the air until even that was too much. Limp and unmoving, the troll was dead.
Genawi streaked from underneath the table to sob at Demetrius’s side. Cahrin joined her to examine his injuries.
“May your spirit go quickly to Nebra,” she whispered sorrowfully.
She had seen many battles as a northern clanswoman, and Demetrius’s pallid skin and shallow breath gave evidence to a body already past suffering. He must have sustained severe internal wounds from his collision with the wall. He’d been dying even before he charged the troll, and he’d probably known it. Yet somehow, he had spirited up enough vigor to save her—and for that, she was thankful.
Genawi leaned over her love, staring at his ashen face as if her gaze alone could restore him. Demetrius’s lids slowly dropped until not even a sliver of life shone through.
King Hybris had fared little better than Demetrius. Barely lucid, he lay unmoving as the castle physician changed bandages soaked through with blood. The king was then transferred to a litter and, with the queen by his side, whisked to more accommodating surroundings.
Two of the king’s servants worked with Cahrin to check the other casualties. It was a gruesome scene: the bodies of the Threshers had been beaten beyond recognition, their leader nothing but a bloody slab.
While Zeph’s only visible wounds were the scrapes along his back and face, he hollered like a child whenever he tried to turn his neck. Cahrin had seen men on the battlefield with similar complaints who never walked again, so she was relieved that he could bend his knees and wiggle his toes.
The loyal Bentar had been thrown down to the atrium. Mangled as he was—leg twisted awkwardly, bone protruding from an arm, broken nose, battered face—it appeared as if he would live to see another day. He seemed more concerned for his fellow guard who had not been so lucky.
Most surprising of the injuries she came across were Raven’s. Though he remained unconscious for a time and appeared heavily bruised, she couldn’t find any broken bones or signs of internal harm. She ran her hand over the pink gouges on his skin. Perhaps he had already withstood more than his fair share of suffering.
It was late when she finally made it to bed.
“That was a very stupid thing you did today,” she said crossly to the xaffel who lay on the pillow beside her. “Very stupid, but very brave.”
Norweegee gave her a toothy smile, and she felt the pride well within him. Before long, the paunchy pink fellow had closed his eyes in slumber.
It took her much longer to fall asleep. Visions of the troll haunted her, as did memories of the mutilated bodies of the dead. When she finally drifted off, her sleep was short-lived and anything but restful.
At daybreak she went to check on Zeph. The court physician had secured his neck with two splints to keep him from turning his head.
“You see what they got me in? I feel like a scarecrow.”
“I’d say it is an improvement to your normal appearance.” Her words felt forced, Demetrius’s last breaths still prominent in her thoughts.
“You’re welcome to try it on,” said Zeph. “It would do wonders for your ice witch look.”
“No, no. I wouldn’t want to deprive you of it.”
“Please, take it. I have a feeling it’s going to make sleeping a nightmare,” Zeph said, pun clearly intended. He attempted a grin, and she laughed uneasily.
After a long silence, his face turned somber. “I killed him, you know. I lied to him so he’d help us escape, and now—now he’s dead.”
It was the first she had heard of this, but it made no difference. If anyone was to blame for Demetrius’s death, it was her. She had missed her opportunity to kill Kreeb, and he had exacted his master’s agenda on another she cared about.
“My people have a saying: the mountain does not blame the snow for increasing its burden. You had little choice in the matter. You did what you thought you must do. That is what I know. Ask yourself if he was truly your friend, why did you have to deceive him in in the first place?”
The neck splint prevented Zeph from turning away to hide the thick lines of anguish that covered his features. “It wasn’t his fault. Demetrius always listened to his father. He was a good son.”
“Yes, I believe he was.” She remembered her not-so-obedient childhood, how she questioned reason at every turn. She wondered what it was like for Zeph, who had never known his parents, only the distant austerity of the Carcs.
“But in the end, Demetrius would’ve done right by us,” said Zeph. “I’m sure of it. Maybe if I hadn’t deceived him, there’d have been another way, one where he never left Duradune.”
“And how would that have changed things? I thought you believed that everyone’s death was preordained by Dela.”
“I’ve been thinking about what Darseer Caspar said, that Azren has the power to disrupt Dela’s thread. He warned us about going against Azren. I—I should have told Demetrius what he was getting himself into.”
She sighed. No sense in arguing with a belief. “And they say, Northerners are pig-headed. You think on this, Zeph Greymoon: no matter what has happened and how it happened, I’m sure Demetrius would forgive you. He’d forgive it all, even though it meant his death.”
Zeph seemed to cheer up at that notion. “Yeah, he would. Demetrius was like that.”
“Of course he was. See? Those neck splints are helping you already.”
“How do you figure?” asked Zeph.
“For the first time since I’ve known you, you’re talking as if your head is on straight. Maybe you should leave the splints on permanently.”
“And maybe you’d like a splint shoved—”
She covered his mouth before he could complete the sentence. “Really, Zeph.”
Despite the barbs that continued as they left the room together, she felt the mood had lightened, at least as much as it could given the circumstances. But if she had not felt a certain responsibility to check on Raven’s wounds, they would have lost another of their companions without the opportunity to say farewell. As it was, he was halfway out the door with his belongings packed when they arrived.
“You’re leaving us,” she said.
Raven’s hollow voice echoed in the narrow corridor. “I must find the servant of Azren before the trail turns cold.”
“What about King Hybris?” Zeph asked. “What about honoring the dead?”
“Babysitting is for nursemaids, and the dead are beyond my help.”
“I guess you and Kreeb have some catching up to do.”
Raven’s eyes flashed dangerously, though his voice maintained his usual dry tone. “It is a shame that the ungrateful must be saved alongside the unwitting.”
Cahrin interceded before Zeph figured out he’d been insulted. “Farewell, then. May our paths cross again.”
“My path leads only to Azren.” He started down the hallway.
With little else to do, she suggested they check on the king. They were denied entry. The guards said that due to His Majesty’s health, he would not be receiving visitors. The next day, King Hybris was pronounced dead.
The news hit Cahrin hard. It was as if their struggle with the troll and the sacrifices of so many had been for nothing. She sought Zeph for companionship. He was as shaken up as she was. Dumbfounded, they aimlessly wandered through the castle, not sure what to talk about or where to go.
“I wonder if Bentar knows?” she asked abruptly.
“The king’s protector who was so badly injured. He may not have been told of King Hybris’s death. I’d want to know the moment it happened, if I were him.”
Zeph shrugged. “If you say so.”
Driven by the idea, she found a servant to direct them to where Bentar was recovering. Poor, loyal Bentar. He was living proof that not all ghasiv were self-serving toads. His face was wrapped in bandages, and his left arm and leg had been put into splints. He was sleeping, and she decided coming to see him was a mistake. Whatever Bentar should be told could wait. With a nod to Zeph, they started to leave.
“Who goes?” said Bentar hoarsely.
No backing out now.
She stepped close to the bed. “Bentar, it’s me, Cahrin.”
She patted the guard’s hand gently. He hardly looked like himself: a wad of white covered the ruin of his nose, and his bushy brown mustache had been trimmed back to make room for bandages above the lips.
“They say you saved me,” he said.
“I only made sure they moved you safely.” She had directed the court physician how best to get Bentar onto a litter without further aggravating his injuries. It was something she had experience with. Her people rarely stayed in one place more than a few days, and there were always wounded.
Zeph, who was closer to the door than the bed, approached. “How…are you feeling?”
Stupid. What kind of question was that? The alcohol the court physician had undoubtedly prescribed to stifle the pain would have been stopped by now. Bentar showed great fortitude to suffer in silence.
Bentar made a face that could have been a gruff smile hidden under bandages and mustache. “I’m alive.”
“Bentar,” she began, not sure if she could continue, but she decided she must. “His Majesty was not so fortunate.”
The news hit Bentar like a blindsided smite. She had felt the same thing earlier, and it still stung. The blood, the lives, the pain. What use was it if the one person meant to survive did not? Bentar looked as if he wanted to crawl inside his bandages and cry. His eyes closed for a long time before he opened them again.
“The drawer.” Bentar shifted his bandaged head in the direction of a nightstand. Inside, she found a rolled parchment. “King Hybris asked that I locate this. I believe he meant to give it to you.”
All those words said at once seemed to tire him, and he closed his eyes once more. This time, they stayed that way.
She unfurled the parchment until she could read the beginning: The Gems of Tazanjia, A Minstrel’s Tale. She opened it more. A bevy of stanzas from top to bottom described gems and prophecies from long ago. Much of it was faded, some to the point of being unreadable. But there was a story here, with obvious detail.
Bentar did not respond. Weariness had overtaken him. She patted his hand once more and they slipped out of the room.
Several hours later, she rejoined Zeph to watch the box containing Demetrius’s remains being loaded onto a cart with two horses. Genawi would accompany the body back to Lord Berrian’s castle. Zeph said something about wishing he could come along and giving Lord Berrian his condolences. Genawi, her eyes red and swollen from more than a day of tears, buried her face in Zeph’s shoulder, sobbing uncontrollably. The undertaker had told them earlier that she had to be pried from the body to prepare it for travel. It took several long minutes for her to regain the composure to stand on her own and bid them farewell.
Back inside, Cahrin could not escape the sadness that pervaded the walls of the castle. It was times like these she hated the oppressive structures the ghasiv built. She wanted to climb Ked’coon’s peaks and call out angrily to Ofunu. As it was, she faced empty corridors and somber rooms. The queen was grieving and would not see them. Even the sky wept.
By evening, she knew it was time to be on their way. The next morning, they packed up their belongings and left Einor behind.
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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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