Chapter 35 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
For as long as Raven could remember, a constant cold emanated from his core that even a southern summer could not warm. But tonight’s unforgiving chill was a reminder that things could be worse. Already, his cheeks and nose felt as if they were made of frozen water and would shatter if a stray rock blew into his scarred face. His gloved hands were stiff and frigid, making the tiniest act difficult. It was not a night to be out riding.
The farther north Raven traveled, the more oppressive the climate. While most of the snow had melted away, frozen white patches still clung to parched fissures in the ground. It was desolate terrain he rode through, lonely terrain known merely as No Man’s Land. Ahead, Raven could see the towering homeland of the Northerners, mountains upon icy mountains that stretched to the starlit sky. Angling west would bring him to Azren’s domain.
Despite the frigid conditions, Raven felt elation building like a chunk of brimstone warming his soul. He had spent more than a year with the Alliance biding his time, waiting to hear word of Azren’s reemergence. And now his wait was over. He had only to discover Azren’s next move, then thwart whatever careful plans were laid out, forcing him out in the open, making him exposed, vulnerable.
Something near to a smile played across Raven’s lips at the thought of delivering a blow so violent, so filled with hatred that Azren would never rise again. He breathed in the crisp night air and imagined what it would be like to finally rid Draza of its most foul blemish. Would anyone appreciate his accomplishment, or would his efforts go unrecognized, like so many tortured screams of his past? That was the problem with pawns: they could be saved or they could be slaves, and they’d scarcely realize how it came to be.
His first order of business was to track down Kreeb. Raven had made this decision back when he was piecing stones together with the king. He realized that his past was like one of the broken stones, and Kreeb knew where the pieces went. Learning about his time in captivity could be the key to defeating Azren.
Tonight bore testament to Raven’s deep determination. It was perilous to be riding in the dark—foolish even—and bone-chillingly miserable. However, he could not stop now, drawn like a moth to a small light in the distance. He had been traveling north for two days under the assumption that Kreeb would be making his way back to his master’s domain. More than halfway through the barren landscape of No Man’s Land, he spotted light, the first sign of another traveler since he had started out. He pushed on past dark, expecting to arrive at a campfire after a short ride. Instead, it had taken most of the night to reach a massive bonfire sitting atop a bluff.
He tied his horse to a glossy white stone that looked like a giant tooth buried in the earth, then started his climb. Though the bluff was steep, he found plenty of areas to catch a handhold or foothold. The worst of it was the coldness of the rocks, which permeated his gloves and rendered his hands numb. Fortunately it was not a long exercise, and by the time he neared the top, he could feel the warmth of the fire and hear its crackling flames contending with the howling wind.
Up close, he better appreciated the bonfire’s impressive stature: twice the length of a man laid head to toe and at least thirty feet high, with tendrils shooting out from innumerable locations. But what made his usual steady pulse quicken was the bonfire’s attendant, Kreeb, huddled inside his charcoal cloak.
The little man’s high-pitched, sibilant voice still rang in Raven’s ears: What an unexpected surprise. The master will be pleased. He doubted very much that the master would express joy once Raven was done with his servant.
First, he would pry from Kreeb everything he knew about the Afflicted One’s plans. This would be a slow and excruciating procedure. He would also learn about his own past, the details needed to fill in the gaps between the nightmarish images of his memories. When he had torn every piece of useful information from Kreeb’s mind, he would kill him and discard the body somewhere his master would be sure to look. And maybe he’d leave a message to make clear that Kreeb would not be the last. Like dismantling a ship, he would start at the bow and remove a plank at a time until nothing was left but a pile of wood.
Raven was about to lift himself over the edge to carry out his dark intentions when the sound of scraping stones joined the crackling of the bonfire. On the other side of the bluff, a bald head peeked into the circle of light. Then another and another, until a dozen humanoids clambered around the fire with Kreeb.
They were unlike anything Raven had seen before. Thick, bone-white arms rippling with muscle burst from tightly fitted blackened leather vests. Though not especially tall, each had broad shoulders, giving them the appearance of powerful warriors. Only their weapon choice and facial features distinguished one from another, except for the largest among them. A head taller than the rest, with a silver ring around its neck where the others wore copper. Its cloak billowed, hiding something underneath. Kreeb approached this one.
While the competing sounds of the wind and fire kept the words between them from being discernible, it was apparent that Raven was witnessing a conversation, a back-and-forth between two intelligent entities. And it was this that made the pallid-skinned creature appear to be more man than beast, though its contorted face in the firelight implied something between. When they were done speaking, this largest of the warriors gathered all but four of its kind and retreated back down the bluff. The others spread out around the bonfire like sentries.
Kreeb strode casually past a small tent, approaching the area where Raven clung. A little closer and he would be within reach.
He stopped just short. His dry, shrill voice cut through the sounds of the night. “Come out, whoever you are.”
Raven was not sure how he had been revealed, but it did not matter. His plan had always been to find Kreeb and question him. Little had changed. He pulled himself onto the bluff to face his adversary.
The man in gray sucked in a surprised breath. “I did not think I’d see you again.”
The pitch and tone of his words sounded different than he remembered. “You are not Kreeb.”
“No, it’s me, Gyste. Please, join me by the fire.”
He turned and walked away, showing Raven his back. Try as he might, Raven could not compel his muscles to do anything but follow. While he didn’t remember this little man with the high-pitched voice, he could not shake the feeling they had once been more than acquaintances.
Gyste motioned Raven to take a seat while he crawled inside the tent. When he returned, it was with two cups of a steaming green liquid.
Raven did not take a seat, nor did he acknowledge the drink. He stared at Gyste, not sure what to make of him.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” asked Gyste. The tone was kind, something Raven was not accustomed to. Now that he heard more of it, the voice bore little resemblance to Kreeb’s. They had the same essence, but deep down, the sounds were distinctively different, like listening to flutes made from dissimilar species of trees.
“I know you only as one who serves at the feet of Azren.”
“I see,” mused Gyste, but the irony of the statement was that he couldn’t see—not really, anyway. They both hid the windows to their souls under the shadows of their hoods. “Maybe this will remind you.”
Gyste pulled back his cowl. What was revealed was not human. Leathery red skin with dark splotches ran from his snout to the top of his head. Oval eyes bulged outward comprising of burnt orange irises surrounding four pupils so close together they formed a line from top to bottom.
“Does this handsome visage stir up any memories?” Gyste asked.
“You are a kobold.” Some part of him had known all along.
Gyste’s smile showed jagged teeth that hearkened back to a day when kobolds were seen as little more than carnivorous beasts. “You really did forget me.”
Not completely. A picture of Gyste chuckling flashed through Raven’s skull like a childhood remembrance. He pushed it aside, allowing his hatred for Azren and all his ilk to well up inside him until he could imagine driving his twin swords through the body of the kobold, crimson blood spilling out to stain the gray cloak the same color as the creature’s skin.
When Raven did not respond, Gyste persisted. “Will you do me the same favor?”
“Very well.” Raven pulled his cowl back and let his eyes burn with every harsh feeling he had.
Gyste was not surprised to see Raven’s mutilated face and ears. He gave an approving nod—at first. Once he noticed the baleful glare, an astonished look crossed his features. “You want to kill me.”
“If it brought me closer to destroying Azren, you would already be dead.” He spoke it not as a threat but as a fact.
“By the blood of my ancestors, you will not find me such easy prey. Besides,” he glanced toward the white-skinned warriors standing sentry, “they would not have it.”
“A time may come when I will have to take my chances.”
“I know you don’t remember this, but not so long ago, you and I were comrades. Some might even call us friends.” Gyste drank a sip of the hot green liquid before pushing the cup toward Raven. “You see, there’s no poison.”
Raven took the cup, regretting it the instant he did. Why am I accepting anything from this creature of Azren? He held it with two hands, feeling the warmth against his gloved palms. He breathed in deeply. The aroma was reminiscent of an obliterated past that threatened to suck him away. He could not help himself but drink. The liquid coated his insides with heat and left his throat tingling with spices. His lids closed in utter contentment.
“If you don’t remember, it’s called grequin tea, made from the same root as its name. Warms the spirit and heals the soul, they say. Hard to believe something this good comes out of the blighted lands alone. It looks like a shriveled weed when you pull it from the ground. Just goes to show you, Raven, not all is what it appears.”
Raven took another long sip before opening his eyes to stare once more at the kobold who claimed to be his friend.
He needed time to contemplate. He couldn’t fathom why he would feel anything but hatred for this Gyste, who was clearly his enemy. Without a word, he turned and started back toward the edge of the bluff.
A hand—a claw—grasped gently at his shoulder. “Do not go. Share the warmth of the fire.”
Raven hesitated. If he left, he could collect his thoughts and track Gyste from afar. He weighed this against remaining to find out more about his shattered past.
“I will not keep you here,” Gyste said. “But if you stay, I’ll make you more grequin tea in the morning.”
He shook free of Gyste’s hand and continued almost to the edge of the bluff before setting up his own camp. He would not cozy up to this servant of Azren.
After a time of lying in his own covers with nothing but the wind and the fire for conversation, his thoughts were interrupted by the kobold. “Do you remember how you were given your name?”
Given? Appalled, he stayed silent, not wishing to admit his ignorance.
“Azren named you after an especially daring escape attempt,” Gyste continued affably. “He said Take heed, my Raven. No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to fly.” A light chuckle came across the crackling flames.
Raven tasted the shameful truth of it in his mouth. Wouldn’t that make him a creature of the Afflicted One, the same as Gyste? No. No, it did not. It could not. The name Raven had been forced upon him like the name of any pet, but he was not his pet anymore. He was a killer. And he was more determined than ever to find Azren and destroy him.
Clinging to that thought, with the residue of the tea still tingling in the back of his throat, Raven found peace. What followed was the most deep and restful sleep he’d had in some time.
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Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and YA Book Central.
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