Chapter 36 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
Song of the Gems
The sparrow came in tilted, favoring a wing, before transforming into a one-handed dogar.
Daen didn’t wait for him to catch his breath. “Well?” he prompted as loudly as he dared.
“Not much to tell,” Selgrin replied, stretching the arm he injured in the fight with Haril. After several precautionary days in a sling, it appeared nearly healed. “With such heavy fog, I had trouble making out my own beak.”
“Did you spot the farmhouse?” Zeph yanked an apple off a nearby tree and bit into it loudly, to Daen’s annoyance.
“There was a structure in that direction.” Selgrin motioned to the northwest. “But it could have been the workshop of a candlestick maker as easily as a farmhouse.”
The assignment was to travel to an abandoned farmhouse a league past Abei, a small city on the outskirts of the Western Kingdoms, and find Tessa Rivenwal. She would have something in her possession for them to keep safe. While Daen trusted Elandra, he felt a bitter sense of familiarity. Despite their philosophical differences, the missions given by the Alliance and the Spider Sect were equally short on details.
“We shall take our chances that there are no candlestick makers out here,” he said drily. “Everyone—and I mean Zeph—concentrate on not attracting any undue attention. We can ill afford to be careless.”
“C’mon, Daen, we’re in the middle of nowhere,” Zeph said softly, avoiding further rebuke. “Don’t tell me you’re honestly bracing for trouble.”
“Does the lack of a single sentry this close to our destination not concern you?”
“Come to think of it, that is strange—unless you consider they aren’t expecting company. Or maybe they’re just keeping a low profile. I for one would be highly suspicious of any farmhouse sporting a sentry.”
“Boys,” scolded Cahrin in a harsh whisper, “standing here bickering is getting us nowhere. Now carry on before I sic Norweegee on the two of you.”
The xaffel sat on her shoulder with arms crossed over his pot belly, not looking particularly deadly. Cahrin glared at them until they started forward. Zeph, still sour, gave Norweegee a tough guy look as he passed, at which the pink familiar yawned.
They waded through a river of fog, careful to heed twisted roots that made it look as though the trees were threatening to break free from their earthen homes. Daen couldn’t help but be reminded of the mission on which they had lost Elise. It had been much like this, shrouded in fog and eerily still, or as Zeph had commented earlier, “so quiet you could hear a dung beetle passing gas.”
Navigating the landscape, he allowed his thoughts to percolate on the scroll Cahrin and Zeph had found. To be fair, it was only a minstrel’s ballad, much of it faded beyond comprehension, but the legible parts brought new insight on the prophesies of Kalendistrafous. He’d kept the scroll that first night to study it. Recalling the words, he turned them over in his mind, trying to divine some greater meaning.
So declared the soothsayer, one day in light of sun,
The Gems of Tazanjia will end the Afflicted One.
First and foremost we shall seek the stone of ever green.
Understand the bite it gives is much more than its sheen.
Be certain that the opal is next you must attain.
Each color that’s reflected, is more for it to gain.
From ocean’s depths the sapphire shall surface to appear,
Despite the tides of its past, it will protect what’s dear.
The cat’s eye glints uniquely, no other’s quite the same,
Each side shall seek its bidding, make sure to stake your claim.
With the diamond’s beauty comes a chill that’s icy cold,
But the powers held within will surely warm the soul.
Blackest of the gems you’ll find to be the onyx stone,
Brought forth from darkest shadows to make Azren-kind atone.
But it was the minstrel’s chorus that kept him up nights thinking.
The past is wrong. The past is right.
What will the fortunes tell?
Only that the future holds what the past repels.
So it was written, six times on the scroll. The middle verses were faded, possibly from facing the sun for too long. But it ended as one might expect any heroic ballad.
Finally, with gems brought forth, has Azren met his match.
Whatever fiendish plans he has will never fully hatch.
Death to Azren and his cohorts, to all opposing force.
In this final revelation shall nature run its course.
Except that as a prophecy, it failed miserably. The gems never revealed themselves, and Azren certainly wasn’t dead.
Interrupting his ruminations came a voice out of the roiling mist.
He halted, gripping the hilt of his hand axe as he scanned the area. The others paused in their steps, looking questioningly at him. Apparently no one else had heard the warning, and now he wondered if it had been a figment of his imagination.
They continued until reaching a long structure with a straw-thatched roof. Daen caught shapes moving in the distance, flickering in the moonlight.
“Do you see that?” he whispered.
“Looks like a farmhouse to me,” responded Zeph.
“Behind it. Something is out there.”
Daen continued to stare into the mist.
Hurry… The word slithered into his ears, but from where—and whom? It was a woman’s voice, but not Elise’s.
And then the movement was gone.
He dropped his gaze. “Let us continue.”
They crept along the outside wall of the farmhouse until they reached a door. Daen scanned their surroundings, searching the wisps of fog and darkened shadows. A knot tightened in the pit of his stomach. Something lay in wait just beyond his sight. Every instinct he had honed told him so.
“What is it?” asked Cahrin. She must have sensed his worry.
But he could not say for certain. A feeling, more than anything else, as if he were moments away from being swallowed up whole. The hairs on the back of his neck stiffened, which did not happen often.
“Inside,” he ordered.
The door opened easily and the group crowded into a small room containing the stump of a tree stuck with an axe, its blade stained with dry blood. Another door barred their entrance into the farmhouse. This one would not budge.
“Anyone in there?” Daen said in a hushed tone. He pressed his ear to the door and caught the distinct sound of a sword being unsheathed.
Zeph was not so reluctant to raise his voice. “We’ve come to speak with Tessa Rivenwal.”
The outer door swung open—the wind, or it hadn’t been closed firmly. Without any way to secure it, the five of them could be easily cornered by an approaching enemy.
“Where’s Rose?” someone called from inside the farmhouse.
“There’s no Rose here,” Zeph answered.
“Elandra sent us,” added Daen.
Behind the door, an argument appeared to take place.
“No one comes in without Rose.”
“They know Elandra and they know my name, that’s good enough for me.”
“It could be a trap.”
“Let them in, Neved.”
The door opened enough for the point of a two-handed sword to stick through. “Let’s see all of you,” said a woman through the gap. “They look all right,” she admitted.
The door opened wider to allow them entry. Their greeter had short brown hair and wide shoulders, and she was as tall as any of them. In her scale mail, she could have been mistaken for a young man.
“Whaddaya think, Tes?” Her accent was Nastadran, the only region of Draza where the women were known as equals to men with the sword.
“I think,” replied a woman who had dark hair with streaks of gray, “that Elandra has followed through on her promise.” Turning to the visitors, she smiled warmly.
“We are glad to have found you,” said Daen. He meant it. If they’d been stuck outside much longer, he was not sure what would have transpired.
“Let me make introductions. I am Tessa. Our Nastadran protector is Neved. This is Jayne.” She motioned to a leather-clad woman who by her resemblance could have been her daughter. “And our brave, battle-worn soldier goes by the name of Biltrin. He’s a corporal in the Western Kingdoms militia.” With grime-layered breeches and a dented breastplate, he looked like he had seen recent action. “We are all so pleased to have you here,” she concluded.
Neved shut and barred the door with three separate slabs of wood while Daen introduced their group. Biltrin eyed them warily from beneath thick, frost-colored brows.
“Now if we could just figure out what happened to Rose,” said an exasperated Tessa. “That girl is always abandoning her post for one reason or another.”
“You can’t blame her,” said Jayne defensively. “This waiting around wasn’t what she signed up for when joining the Sect.”
“I suppose we can’t afford to be picky with recruits these days,” lamented Tessa.
Neved gave them a once-over, pausing critically at Selgrin. “You can say that again,” she said, adding a snort. “They aren’t even requiring them to be women.”
“They certainly made an exception in your case,” Selgrin shot back.
Before Neved could reply, they heard the closing of the outside door to the barn. “And there she is,” Tessa announced. “Rose, dear!”
This was followed by the shuffling of feet—too many feet, to Daen’s ears. Thump. Something pounded at the door.
“Rose?” Tessa started toward the entrance.
Copius stepped in front of her.
“Allow me, my lady,” he said before calling out, “Who goes there?”
The door shuddered violently in answer.
Protect… Daen heard a feminine whisper. He readied his crossbow. The others followed suit, drawing back bows and brandishing melee weapons.
There was no sound for several long moments, their collective breath held in hope the intruders had given up or left. Then came a crunch as a white-skinned knuckle burst through the door.
Jayne gasped, and the arrow she held trembled.
“Not yet,” cautioned Daen. Cahrin stood next to him with her own owl-feathered arrows at the ready.
The pallid hand jerked left to right, clearing the wood around it. A savage jab from Neved’s sword sent the appendage retreating. Neved made another thrust through the torn-out opening and almost lost her weapon when something pulled at it from the other side. She yanked it back, staggering on her heels before she righted herself.
“Hold…” Daen said. “Let them come to us.”
The next blow to the door connected with such force that the top third splintered inwards and the reinforcement bar split apart. A creature the color of a skull and just as bald pushed through the decimated doorway, punching out the remains.
“Now,” said Daen, letting loose a bolt that punctured the torso of the intruder.
Two arrows followed with a flutter and a thud.
The creature appeared to take little notice of the wounds, as it marched forward. Neved met it with a stab to its stomach. Crimson blood stained its midsection, contrasting fiercely with its stark white skin. Its hand lashed out and caught Neved on the forehead, driving her backward.
Daen stared at the enemy in perplexity. He’d never seen anything like it. At first glance, it appeared to be a beast of incredible strength and fortitude, similar to the troll Zeph and Cahrin had described to him. Yet it was proportioned like a man, muscled and wide-bodied. It carried itself like a man, too. Its face, though ugly, contained aspects that were undoubtedly humanoid, but its eyes begot something that was neither man nor beast—devoid of pupils, pure white ovals that stared out listlessly rather than savagely.
“Die, demon!” cried Neved, charging forward. She swung her two-handed sword and decapitated the creature. Blood oozed from the neck like sludge moving down a sandy beach.
But where one fell, more of the white-skinned warriors streamed into the barn, bringing a musty, sour smell with them. Daen shouldered his crossbow and drew forth his hand axe. Stepping forward, he met the first with a swift cut that drove it back against the wall. His opponent swung two short swords, one slicing across its body right to left, shoulder to knee. The second sword thrust outward powerfully. Daen parried; his arm shook. The other blade grazed him, leaving a bloody trail on his forearm. He countered with a flurry of hacks and chops, all turned away by a clash of steel.
His heart pounded. The white warrior looked like a creature of nature, but it acted more like the weapons it held: strong, dangerous, and unemotional. Who sent these things and what are they after? A blade missed him below the armpit; another slammed his buckler and was deflected into his pauldrons. He was lucky to have his head still intact.
Two columns of mud and rock erupted from beneath them, enveloping the creature’s arms and securing them in packed earth, leaving it defenseless.
Daen raised an axe. The creature’s face contorted gruesomely as it strained against its dirt shackles. A white arm broke free and a short sword flashed forward, slitting Daen’s brow. He sprang back, watching more of the hardened mud wrap around his adversary. Not waiting this time, he let his axe fall, splitting the creature forehead to chin and spraying him with sticky red blood.
A glance behind found Tessa weaving her fingers to a soft chant. She would need protection while she continued to invoke the earth to their aid. Daen moved toward her and Jayne, while keeping an eye on the others in their own duels.
Zeph darted in and out, extending Venytier toward openings in his adversary’s defenses. Its chalky-white skin became stained with red gashes, though the injuries did not appear to slow it. Dodging a powerful chop, Zeph carved a happy face across his enemy’s stomach, a move that should have sent guts spilling out the opening. Blood escaped from the wound, but no entrails followed.
Maintaining the front line, Selgrin traded strokes with a mace-wielding monstrosity. Neither appeared to be gaining the upper hand as blows and counterblows were parried or dodged.
Another of the white-skinned creatures thundered toward Copius and Biltrin.
“Keep Biltrin safe, my fine monk,” called Tessa. “He is the reason we’re all here.”
Daen snapped his head toward Tessa. What did she mean by that?
Copius lodged a sandal under the chin of his assailant before it could bring its two-handed battle axe to bear. Then he delivered a whip of a back-fist to the nose, followed by a bone-crunching kick to the midsection. The creature landed more than a body’s length away. Without hesitation, it rose to its feet.
Daen saw Zeph now on the ground, rolling to dodge a curved sword. An owl-feathered arrow punctured the creature’s chest, disrupting its next attack. Zeph sprang to his feet, bringing Venytier up in a backhanded slash. The blade split the creature’s pallid throat, ending its life before it hit the ground.
Towering above the skirmish came another of the alabaster humanoids, wearing a silver ring around its neck and a long cloak that sprayed out from its body. Behind it emerged a small figure in gray.
The servant of Azren. The one who had eluded Daen in Yridark and had unleashed the troll on King Hybris.
Cahrin caught site of her nemesis and redirected her bow. She aimed briefly, too briefly, and let an arrow fly. It arced high, succeeding only in advertising her intentions. The moment was lost. The figure in gray stepped back into the protective cover of his silver-ringed comrade.
With a holler, Neved charged at the enormous creature, swinging her two-handed sword overhead like a set of bolas before bringing it across its cloaked shoulders.
Crack. The blade stopped as if it hit stone. A giant white hand tore the clasp of the cloak free, revealing glossy black wings framed by finger-length spikes that looked like spires on a castle.
Neved made to swing again. This time, the creature reacted in a blur, massive hands picking her up, throwing her against the nearest wall.
More of the white creatures poured in, threatening to overrun them. Two flanked Zeph. Another joined the fight against Copius. Daen moved forward to engage a pair carrying polearms: a glaive, and a halberd.
Escape… the whisperer urged him.
Why am I the only one hearing and seeing things? It had started with his visions of Elise. Then the mystery voice in Yridark, the rustling chatter on the way to Feralintero. And now here. What is happening to me?
He arced his axe at the glaive-wielding enemy. He had no intention of scoring a hit, not yet, only to keep it at bay, to give him time to think. Any normal foe would have backed away. This creature stepped into the axe, taking it on the chest, then sliced its glaive downward. Daen escaped only by leaving his own axe embedded.
No time to think. His heart rattled in his chest He could not hold out against both at once. They were too strong, too swift, too ready to sacrifice themselves for his death. When the glaive swung again, he ducked, then closed in so the polearms would have trouble targeting him.
He reached his hand axe, pulled it free, and went on the offensive. Short hacks sheared pallid skin. Before long, his boots sloshed in a pool of red ooze. He stayed near one enemy denying its comrade a clear shot. That didn’t seem to matter. The other swung its halberd carelessly, slicing the neck of its ally in the first attack, tearing off its shoulder in the next. The mutilated glaive-bearer fell into Daen, knocking him over and landing on top of him. He was pinned to the ground, fending off methodical chops from above using the corpse of his enemy as a shield.
A white arm was severed. The back was sliced through. Still the attacks kept coming, neither angry nor precise but constant. He pushed what was left of the body off him. The next attack spun his hand axe away. The one after dented his buckler.
Hurry. Protect. Escape. Whatever he thought he was hearing was meaningless in the face of these creatures of Azren.
“Fall back!” Tessa cried from behind him.
A halberd came down for a finishing blow as a wall of dirt rose to intercept it. The wall surged upward, decapitating the halberd as it created a barrier between the defenders and their adversaries.
“What the—” he heard Zeph call as the ground erupted in front of him, sending chunks of dirt in all directions. The wall did not stop until it spanned the length of the farmhouse from floor to ceiling, protecting them from their enemy, keeping them safe for now.
Daen rose in a daze. He staggered over to pick up his axe. The others looked as battered as he felt. Copius had a nasty gash on his head, and blood caked Zeph’s leather. But where is Cahrin?
“We must retreat!” shouted Tessa. A motion of her hand opened the dirt near their feet revealing a passageway below them.
A section of the wall shattered, exposing the creature hammering through. Tessa curled her fingers one at a time, conjuring fresh mud to take its place. “Go now!”
Jayne blinked back tears and jumped through the opening. Daen shepherded the others down behind her. Bullied and beaten, they left grudgingly, reluctant to abandon Cahrin, but knowing they had no other choice.
Tessa was tiring. The wall separating them from their enemy was breaking down in places. One moment there stood a barrier of hardened soil, the next a shattered pile of dirt.
Daen spotted Cahrin behind a collapsed wall before it built back up. “Make me an opening so I can retrieve her.”
“No time,” Tessa said without looking at him.
“I will not leave her. I am a sentinel, a trained protector.”
“You must protect Biltrin now.”
Copius stood with Daen, staring at the chaotic scene. He too appeared resolute in staying. A flick of Tessa’s hand caused the ground to crumble beneath them.
“No.” Daen clutched for solid dirt as he and Copius slid precipitously downward with the rest.
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