Chapter 38 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
The Many Eyes of the Ilpith
Mud and rocks swelled up from the ground, seemingly in slow motion, giving Cahrin time to choose between life and revenge. She skipped across the rising mound without regret or trepidation. Packed dirt climbed to the ceiling behind her, closing off escape, sealing her with her enemies.
One apprentice summoner against a pack of enemies who look as if they're sculpted out of limestone. It was almost laughable.
Norweegee buried himself in her pocket, shivering against more than the cold.
No turning back now. There could have been a hundred of them for all she cared. She only needed to kill the coward in the charcoal cloak. And she knew just the nightmare for the job.
She took a deep, calming breath. Her aggressors continued to focus on penetrating the mud barrier, smashing it with their weapons and charging into it with little success. A portion of the wall decimated by a two-fisted strike reformed before its attacker could take advantage of the opening.
A self-gratifying smile creased her face. By the time they turned their attention to her, it would be far too late.
Raising her fingers, she drew the first symbols of summoning an ilpith. Now that Master Ulfin was gone, she was the sole living person who knew how. The precise gestures and true name had been handed down from master to pupil for hundreds of years. The only documented summoning was burned into the annals of summoner lore: …pieces torn and strewn on the sand as if nature had laid waste to a building of bodies… The words had somehow carved themselves into her mind.
The faint outlines of the ilpith took form, so large it spanned the entire area from the mud wall to the entrance of the farmhouse. Even now, still a shell of its existence, the ilpith reeked of hate. The effect was not in full force, but it was enough to sap her strength, to cause her heart to spike.
She focused on making one intricate sign after another, while a distant part of her sought out Kreeb. There he was, behind the largest of the creatures, shielding himself from the fray. She would make sure he did not escape. His hooded head was pointing toward her watching her work. Then to her delight she saw him start in dread as the ilpith began to solidify.
The farmhouse swam with hundreds of maws filled with jagged teeth attached to a bulbous mass of spiked skin. The ilpith had no legs to speak of; it would simply grope its way from one victim to the next, a devouring blanket of death, midnight-black save for red, raisin-shaped eyes that shone all over its body like bloody stars in a sky.
She registered Kreeb’s sibilant voice calling for his warriors to redirect their attacks, to kill her before the summoning was complete. It was too late for them. And too late for me. She pushed the thought from her mind. It didn’t matter. Even after her death, the ilpith would remain for a time, enough to ensure all her enemies would be dead.
The winged albino snapped its head in her direction. Another of the creatures came charging at her with a spear. But it was the white warrior nearest her, pounding the wall with two fists, that could ruin everything.
Just a few more moments…
The ilpith was nearly opaque now, its crimson eyes looking eager, mouthfuls of teeth chomping amidst drool and black tongues. The wave of malevolence it emitted threatened to overcome her. She fought through it, tracing the symbols, ignoring all else.
The point of a spear sped toward her.
Fists rose and fell.
She tensed, anticipating the steel entering her body and white knuckles caving in her head. It was almost too much to ignore as she made the very last sign.
Something grabbed Cahrin from behind—hands made of mud—and pulled her through the wall to the other side. The spear of the charging creature hit only compacted dirt, and its brother pounded nothing but air. Her focus was shattered, and the summoning came to an end a quarter of a stroke before its completion.
The nearly materialized ilpith began to fade back to nothingness. A final surge of bloodthirsty longing escaped its being, washing over those present in a chilling farewell.
Cahrin tried to wriggle free to continue what she had started, but the meddling hands held her fast and then threw her down a hole. She landed on top of Copius. A moment later, the opening was gone.
“C’mon, both of you.” Selgrin said. “It’s time to go.”
The rest of the group was already marching ahead through the underground passage, torches in hand. She picked herself up. She had no other choice but to follow, but not without giving Selgrin a scathing glare as she passed, feeling compelled to vent her anger at someone.
They maintained a quick pace in single file through the narrow tunnel. In all her years with the ghasiv, she had never grown accustomed to spending her days in enclosed structures, and this was many times worse. The tunnel looked recently dug, with dirt still crumbling from walls ready to collapse at any moment. When Jayne finally halted and bored through the ceiling at what seemed a random location, no one was more relieved than Cahrin.
They climbed out to a lightly wooded area where four horses were tied up and waiting. Biltrin rode solo, Jayne doubled up with Daen, and Sel rode with Copius. That left Cahrin with Zeph.
Maybe another time when she wasn’t so angry, she would have welcomed the verbal sparring. Not tonight. With two of their comrades left behind and who knew what lay ahead, no one was in the mood for talk except Zeph. One word earned him an elbow in the gut for his trouble. After that, he stayed quiet all the way to the inn at Meritosn that evening.
Zeph was not surprised to wake up alone in his bedroom. Daen always seemed to get up with the break of dawn—some sentinel thing. Copius’s stomach had its own internal clock, and you just never knew with Sel.
He found them in the next room milling about with slack faces and dead eyes—they looked like Zeph felt: wounded physically and in spirit. Though they had rescued the queen of Durfolk, they had failed to save the king of Embia, or to stop the dogar from embracing Azren. The white creature from the farmhouse had punished them, forcing them to retreat, to leave their comrades behind and hole up in this nothing of a town licking their wounds.
Only Jayne seemed to have a sense of purpose among them, staring determinedly out the window.
“How long has she been like that?” asked Zeph after a time.
“As usual, you’re the last out of bed and first to satisfy his curiosity,” Cahrin said from the top bunk.
He ignored the comment. “Anyone at least know what she’s up to?”
“I suspect she is looking for someone,” said Daen, straight-faced.
“Thanks for clearing that up.” He didn’t like being left in the dark—or being stuck in one place. He approached Jayne. “Are you going to tell us the plan or continue to lead us around by our noses?”
“Zeph Greymoon.” Cahrin hopped down from the bed to confront him. “That’s the most callous thing I’ve heard from you—which says a lot. The young dove just lost her mother, mind you.”
Jayne turned to face Cahrin. “What do you know of it? Did you watch her die?”
All other conversation in the room hushed.
“No. No, I did not. But I have seen enough of war to know how false hope can torture one’s spirit. What your mother did, Jayne, was very brave. She understood—we all understood—the chance of her escaping was slim.”
“She’s very resilient, my mother,” Jayne said, her chin raised defiantly.
“If she is anything like you, I bet the fire of her spirit is hard to put out.”
Jayne turned back to the window. “We are supposed to meet there.” She pointed down at the plaza, where a circular fountain stood on a stone dais with a dirt path separating it from an array of shops selling soaps, candles, produce, and sacks of grains. The area was thick with townsfolk. She continued to stare out the window, not saying anything more.
The quiet that followed was too much for Zeph. “How long are we going to wait?”
A painful stomp to his toes from Cahrin suggested she did not approve of the question or timing, but Jayne didn’t seem to mind. “She will be here today, or not at all.”
At least they wouldn’t be stuck at the inn for very long. They could use some time to rejuvenate, but for Azren to send his creatures this far from his domain was brazen. They weren’t safe staying in one place. Not here. Not anywhere.
They took turns going downstairs to order food while Jayne continued her vigilance, like a duty-bound knight watching the plaza below. Though no one said it, a question hung heavy among them: Who was Biltrin, and why was he so valuable to the Spider Sect? If only they hadn’t promised Elandra there would be no questions asked. The lack of detail didn’t bother Zeph as much as the lack of a defined end to their mission. Instead, he was perfectly bored, unsure what he should be doing or when he should be doing it.
He relaxed by sitting on the bottom bunk, sharpening his throwing daggers, and trying to engage the others in conversation.
“Hey, Cahrin,” he called. She sat on the floor with a bowl on her lap. “I wanted to say thanks for, you know, putting an arrow in Baldy back at the farmhouse.”
“We all do our part,” she said between spoonfuls of soup. “I was simply helping out where it was needed most.”
He bristled. “You never miss a chance, do you?”
“Why Zeph, whatever do you mean?” she replied in a syrupy voice.
“You know, insulting me. Acting like I was having the worst time of it when it was you who was worried about me.”
“Hey!” Jayne put her face to the window. “I see her.”
They all crammed together. Sure enough, Zeph spotted a figure in an ill-fitting mustard cloak sitting on a bench outside the plaza.
“That is not your mother,” said Daen, stepping away from the tangle vying for a glimpse.
Copius seconded the opinion, then tripped over Sel’s foot. “That person is much bigger than she is,” he said from the floor.
“Whoever it is, I’m going to rip the cloak from their dead body,” said Jayne.
Sel helped Copius up. “She—or he—may just be trying to get our attention.”
“Or to draw us out into the open,” said Daen. “Zeph, do you want to go down and investigate?”
“Is Dela the mother of all seamstresses?” He had been itching for the chance to spell the waiting game.
“Wear your hood. If you sense trouble, signal by pulling it back.”
“And if there is trouble, where will we meet next?”
“Remember that place in Delween where we holed up for three nights?”
Zeph let out a low chuckle. “You mean where the women were forced to serve mead while we did nothing but play dice in the back room?”
“Yes, that one.”
“If you two are done,” Cahrin said, “this mead-serving wench has had about enough.”
“I know the place,” Zeph said, wiping the smile from his face. He’d almost forgotten Cahrin had been on that mission as well.
“If it goes badly, we shall meet there in the morning, two days from now,” Daen said.
The sun was low in the sky as Zeph slipped into the plaza. He meandered from one store to the next, working his way toward the bench. When his target’s attention appeared diverted, he sidled up on an adjacent seat. A mustard-hooded head turned toward him, but not before he had Venytier readied.
“How—” The voice was Neved’s, cut short by the pressure of Zeph’s blade.
“Where’s Tessa?” asked Zeph.
“What do you think you’re doing? We’re all on the same side here.”
He backed Venytier away, still close enough that Neved would be dead before she could draw against him.
“That’s better.” She rested a hand on the pommel of her sword. “Tes was injured. She sent me ahead to the meet. Do you have Biltrin?”
Zeph ignored the question. “How did you get out of there unscathed?”
“I have my wounds—a bruise the size of Taleon Lake on my backside, for one. I was lucky I wasn’t put down for good. When I came to, Tes was bending over me. I found out later that they were only after Biltrin. Ignored me completely. The only reason Tes got hurt was that she tried to stop them from following all of you. Lucky for her—lucky for both of us—they’re single-minded creatures, whatever they are.”
Zeph was satisfied enough to sheath his blade. “So what now?”
“I was told to bring you to Tes and to make certain you had Biltrin. You do have him, don’t you?”
“Sure. What is it with that guy, anyway?”
“He’s important, that’s all,” said Neved. “Where is everyone staying?”
Zeph hesitated. He had every reason to trust Neved, and yet his instinct was telling him something was amiss. She was too determined to get her hands on the prize. And while her story was plausible, it was not without holes. Why would Tessa give her the mustard cloak? Certainly they would have recognized Neved without it. And why hadn’t she asked about Jayne’s well-being?
Rising from his seat, he led the way, pausing after a hundred paces to wrap an arm around Neved’s shoulder. “You know, I hear small towns such as these have not mastered the art of watering down the ale, if you catch my drift. Maybe after we get you to Biltrin…”
Neved jerked away, dislodging his casual embrace. He expected this and allowed himself to be spun partially around by her action to get a quick look behind them. They were being followed—that or a handful of rather large townsfolk happened to be leaving the plaza at the same time.
He pulled back his hood. “You’ll never believe where we stashed Biltrin.”
“He’s given the signal,” Daen announced. He reached for his backpack. Biltrin and Selgrin were already by the door. Only Jayne ignored him as she continued to stare transfixed out the window.
“I’m the leader here,” she replied, “and I say we’re staying.”
“Listen, your mother is not coming back—ever.” A pained look crossed Jayne’s face and Daen wished he hadn’t led with that. “Even if she is alive, we cannot stay here and risk Biltrin being captured.”
“I’m tired of all of you telling me my mother’s dead. Leave if you want. Biltrin and I are waiting here until the day’s end.”
Copius swallowed the last bite of his pie before kneeling down before their young leader. “Only The One knows if she lives or looks down on us from Ascouth, but understand this: Tessa Rivenwal risked her life so we could continue. I—I don’t think she would have wanted you to…”—he struggled for the words—“put the mission aside for her sake.”
Jayne cast her eyes downward at the sincere monk kneeling before her. “But if I don’t stay,” she said in barely more than a whisper, “no one else will be here for her.”
Cahrin gave her a reassuring smile. “My father would say our toughest decisions are when our heart is at odds with our mind.”
A tense silence followed. Daen weighed his options should Jayne insist they remain: follow orders, or drag her away kicking and screaming, for the good of the mission.
“Go,” Jayne said through a cracking voice, “all of you, and take Biltrin with you. He must speak with King Reginald.” She turned to Cahrin. “This mission is yours now. Don’t waste another minute. Biltrin may be the only person in Draza who can stop the war between the Western Kingdoms and Nastadra.”
Zeph led Neved away from the inn, strolling casually as he made small talk. “So when did you join the Spider Sect?”
“Four years ago. I was just a soldier for Nastadra before then.” She kept getting ahead of him as she tried unsuccessfully to force his pace. “How about you? Did you get recruited recently, or is Sect business in your blood?”
“In my blood?” He was unsure what she was getting at.
“I noticed your thumb bears the mark of a web. The only other time I’ve seen something similar was on another Sect member.”
Zeph stared at his thumb in disbelief. He’d never really thought his birthmark resembled a web or imagined that it might lead to some clandestine organization. “Who was she?” he blurted more anxiously than intended.
Neved’s brow furrowed; the edge of town was up ahead. “Where are they all holed up, anyway?”
The time for small talk was over. Darkness had fallen, giving him the edge he needed. He lowered his voice. “I think we’re being followed.”
She gave a cursory look behind them. “What makes you so sure?”
“Let’s just say I’m not a peddler Elandra picked up off the street.” He started down the last narrow alleyway he could find. “I was with the Alliance before this.”
She bristled. “Alliance, eh? Traitorous scum.”
“Look who’s talking.” Venytier was out in a flash, its point digging into the back of her neck. Grabbing her shoulder with the other hand, he turned them both around to face their pursuers.
“This is the second time you have held a blade to my neck this night.”
“The first time was for practice. Now, tell your friends to show themselves.”
“Corth!” Neved called. “Your clumsy attempts to follow us have been noted.”
A half-dozen men strolling at various distances stopped in their tracks.
“Put down your weapon,” commanded the closest one. He swept back his cape, revealing a belted sword and steel plate armor with an insignia of a golden pike. PIKE merchant guards. Things were getting more interesting by the moment.
“Can’t do it,” he called back.
The men fanned out, blocking all escape routes other than the alleyway behind Zeph.
“Tell us where Biltrin is and I promise none of your friends will be hurt,” said Neved. “You have no skin in this. Get out while you can.”
Zeph twisted Venytier and felt her jerk in pain. He leaned close and spoke in her ear. “What really happened to Tessa?”
“She died—and so shall you, if you keep this up.”
“Oh, I’ll die all right, but you’re not going to have any say in it. Now, take off the cloak. You don’t deserve to wear it.”
“You’re not serious?”
The PIKE guardsmen shuffled forward, testing their boundaries.
Zeph brought his dagger across to the front of her neck. “Back!” he shouted.
They stopped but did not retreat.
“Very well.” She pulled off the left shoulder and then the right, swatting his hand away as she did so and spinning to face him. Admittedly she was in a better tactical position, but the fact remained that she held no weapon. And when she went for the dagger at her belt, he slashed her throat.
She covered the opening with her hand; blood still ran between her fingers and spilled to the ground at an alarming rate.
The guardsmen pressed forward. Zeph backpedaled into the alley, grabbing Neved by her jerkin and pulling her with him. “No farther!” he shouted, waving Venytier. Blood leaked from Neved like overflowing wine; she had thirty moments to live at best.
“Tell me about the other with my birthmark,” he said.
“Save me,” she whispered.
He grabbed three throwing daggers with his other hand and began backing away. There was no saving Neved.
“Stay where you are,” he threatened the PIKE soldiers.
He was halfway down the alley when Neved fell to her knees. Not long now. The PIKE guardsmen sensed this as well and came rushing after him. He let loose with the throwing daggers, more for cover than anything. The blades soared over Neved’s head and caused her comrades to pause in their tracks.
Zeph turned and ran. He cleared the alley at a full sprint, pelting past a row of closed shops and around a corner tavern. He leapt up, grabbed hold of the roof, and lifted himself up. He stayed low as the sounds of pursuit rushed past him in two directions, then moved to a large chimney billowing smoke from the tavern’s dining area. Twisted into the shadows of the chimney, he was invisible from anywhere more than a few feet away. Here he would rest while the guardsmen chased their tails.
By the time he crawled from his hiding place, the sun was just peeking above the horizon. He made his way through the streets of Meristosn, moving from the shadows of one building to the next until finally there were no buildings ahead of him, only roads.
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