Chapter 42 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
Zeph was beginning to think Biltrin had taken one too many knocks to the head. Who goes charging off alone into a pack of blood hungry wolves, anyway? It was always the quiet ones that ended up foaming at the mouth—and when Biltrin did talk, it was about that soldier’s code of his and for the king’s ears only.
Worse, the insanity seemed infectious. Selgrin followed Biltrin’s lead, and not a moment later Copius too broke toward the tree line.
“No!” Daen yelled, causing Copius to pause. “Stay by the fire. We do not have the numbers to survive otherwise.”
Copius pressed his glasses up defiantly. “I will not abandon Sel.”
“I am pretty sure Sel can take care of himself.”
“Yes,” said Cahrin. “But the mission fails if Biltrin dies.”
“I hate to break this to you,” said Zeph, “but if Biltrin is meant to die, there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”
“According to your twisted beliefs. But I believe that actions matter—and so do promises.” Cahrin glared determinedly. “Jayne entrusted us to bring Biltrin before King Reginald, and we should not let the young dove down.”
Zeph imagined Jayne waiting by the window for her mother to show up as day turned into night. He’d never known his real family, but he could imagine losing a mother was not easy. “Guess our own thread length is already set. Might as well go crashing through the forest after a deranged man-at-arms than stay cringing by the fire.”
“Very well,” Daen said, though he didn’t look happy about it. “But we go as one.”
Copius led the way, torch in hand, following a trail of bent branches. Zeph shouldered through brambles that scratched his face and left his clothes smelling of pine. The skirmish they sought must have moved deep into the woods, its sounds now lost amidst the crunching of the undergrowth and snapping of twigs. It got to the point where Zeph started counting the number of times he ducked under a branch. At thirteen he realized he could hear whining and the occasional “son of Dronilowyn’s hairy stepdaughter.”
Then they broke into a clearing where gray fur spread out before them—a wall of wolf backsides pressed one against the other.
“By The One, you shall leave them be,” exclaimed Copius, driving his torch at the wolves’ hindquarters. Yelping, the beasts parted before him. He swung his flame from side to side as he rushed headlong through brambles and fur. “Aaaaaah!” he shouted, clearing a path before stumbling on a tree root and sprawling onto his chest, barely keeping hold of his torch.
“Watch it, or you’ll set the whole forest on fire,” groused Sel. He was on the ground where he’d been fending off wolves before Copius’s wild charge scattered them. Slashes and cuts formed a pattern on his good arm, and a gash on his chin dripped blood down his neck.
“Where is Biltrin?” asked Daen.
“I lost him during the fight,” replied Selgrin, rising to his feet. “Last I saw, he was over there.” He pointed with his broadsword deeper into the forest, where broken branches and flattened bushes marked someone’s passage.
Cahrin charged off in the indicated direction, the others close behind. Zeph wondered for the umpteenth time what Biltrin could have to say to King Reginald that was so important. Zeph was pretty sure he’d be more interesting company than some somber old warrior.
They had not gone far before the wolves regrouped, growling and feinting at them. Zeph took up the rear guard with his ebbing brand. The trail marking Biltrin’s passage became less pronounced, and travel slowed considerably. When the trail faded altogether, Cahrin continued to lead them in the same general direction. Either she was reading more subtle signs than Zeph could discern or blindly continuing for no other reason than because hesitation would result in certain failure.
“I’m running out of wood here,” called Zeph as he swiped his dying flame at a pair of snapping jaws. He kept his eyes peeled for any timber he could transfer the fire to, but given their constant movement, ongoing harassment, and the darkness of the forest, he was having trouble locating anything suitable. Cahrin continued to forge ahead, leaving him no choice but to use the last of his brand against the mounting number of aggressive wolves.
“Guys…” Zeph called out as he struggled to keep up. “Guys!”
A lean gray and black wolf leapt at him. Zeph fed it a mouthful of nearly extinguished torch, which the wolf ripped from his grasp. Drawing Venytier, he shuffled backward in near darkness. Copius and Daen were several lengths ahead, preoccupied with their own battlefront.
Zeph sensed more than one wolf stalking him. A dark shape leapt. Venytier thrust, splitting the attacker from shoulder to stomach. Another crashed into his side knocking him to the ground. He stabbed blindly, finding fur, feeling blood. Amidst the cries of pain and threatening growls, more wolves fell upon him. Claws shredded leather and skin.
He kicked out with his legs, rolling as he slashed, but still they came, gnawing, biting, scratching. The sheer number of wolves was overwhelming. He sent Venytier flaring out, piercing his attackers, clearing the area and briefly leaving him free. When he tried to rise, a wolf sent him back to the ground, four paws landing on his chest. Teeth dug into a wrist, and Venytier dropped from his grip. A second wolf joined in as they vied for position like combatants fighting over a meaty bone. One settled at his head, the other at his bowels. Saliva dripped onto his face, teeth pressed to skin. The wolf’s breath was putrid. Zeph retched. He had the feeling it might be the last thing he’d do.
And then the smell lifted, as did the weight of the wolves, with a yelp and scampering of paws.
It took a moment for Zeph to raise his head off the ground. He barely held off another gastric episode. He felt horrible and figured he looked worse.
The largest of the wolves was racing away, its hindquarters blackened. Zeph’s companions formed a protected arc around him.
“Are you okay?” asked Daen, offering a hand.
Zeph waited until he could draw some crisp night air before picking Venytier up and allowing himself to be pulled to a standing position. His leather armor was shredded and he had innumerable scrapes and punctures all over his body, but he didn’t seem to have any serious wounds.
“Me? I feel great,” he said. “Let’s do it again.”
“Perhaps another time. For now, we should get back to camp.” Daen pushed one of his two torches toward Zeph, who gladly accepted it. They had run out of options. The trail was lost, and the odds of stumbling upon Biltrin were about the same as finding a sleeping water elemental in the Adarak Sea. Even Cahrin nodded her assent.
“You four go,” said Selgrin. “I’m going to try tracking him by smell.” He started off deeper into the woods, his transformation already starting as a brown tail disappeared into the foliage.
The rest of the group retraced their steps, using wide swings of their torches as a warning to the nearby wolves. No more attacks came. Once Daen had singed the most aggressive of them, the rest seemed less inclined to pester their group. Though it didn’t keep Zeph from relentlessly searching the darkness for signs of the next wave of attackers.
Back at the campsite, Copius’s backpack had been ravaged. He dropped to his knees, frantically searching through the pack, mumbling something about his spare apple sausage. Fortunately, the other gear lay untouched. The campfire had shrunk in their absence to half its former size.
The wolves continued to keep their distance, but innumerable pairs of translucent yellow eyes stared at them from the shadows.
The howls continued, one mournful moan running into the next until the melody was broken by a soloist, a throaty bellow in the distance that rose above the rest. The back-and-forth continued until the wailing of the unseen wolf grew so loud that the others sounded like feeble echoes in comparison.
“I was wrong before,” said Daen as he hurriedly fed the flames the last of the fire wood. “I do not believe the wolves are waiting for a weakness but for their leader to arrive.”
If that was true, Zeph had a feeling their wait was about to come to an end.
With one final, earsplitting howl, a wolf unlike any he had ever seen before entered the firelight. It stood half again the height of even the largest of the beasts that encircled them, with black, shaggy fur like the pelt of a bear. It padded nearer the flames and snarled, showing off a mouthful of perfect, pointy teeth. Its brethren joined in.
Zeph stood shoulder to shoulder with Daen and Copius with his back hot against the campfire, as the wolves closed in. His body tensed remembering his last wolf encounter: claws raking skin and the overwhelming smell of rotting meat.
A faraway howl pierced the night. The pack hesitated, ears perked toward the stars, listening for the call to come again. It did, closer this time.
It was a challenge.
Restlessly, the wolves whined and shuffled about. Only their leader stood still among them, mouth half open, eagerly waiting.
But the challenger’s appearance was anticlimactic. Zeph had expected an even larger wolf. While this one might have rivaled any of the others in size, it was no physical match for the pack leader. The newcomer had straight brown fur, a short snout, and thick legs. Though low to the ground, its body was barrel-shaped and stout.
The rest of the wolves surrounded this new rival, preventing its retreat.
With small, purposeful steps, the two alphas traced a circle around each other, top and bottom, left and right, as if they were partners in a dance. The pack leader made several short huffs, heckling, but its rival didn’t take the bait. Instead, it continued moving, keeping its distance, eyes intent on its target as it delayed the inevitable.
Zeph swung his torch back and forth while fingering his throwing daggers. If something doesn’t happen soon…
The black wolf launched itself through the air. The challenger crouched underneath, tearing a chunk of underbelly as the black wolf passed. Blood spilled, and the dance began once more. This time, the black wolf tightened its circle with each step. Once within reach, it lunged. Jaws parted and snapped shut. It came up empty. Twice more, teeth clamped on air before they were rewarded with a mouthful of fur. The brown wolf cried out. Its coat became flecked with red, and its demeanor turned wary as the dominant black wolf stalked its nimbler prey.
One thing Zeph had learned as a Carc was how to size up opponents. Were they in control of their emotions or easily angered, calculating or quick to act, dense as a piece of wood or cunning like wolves? The way these creatures moved and reacted to each other showed they were more than cunning. He could see it in their eyes—the brown’s were sad and resolute, the black’s dark and sinister. They knew exactly what they were doing and why they were doing it. But there was something almost—
The contest almost ended with a savage bite the brown wolf barely avoided. Maybe in an open field, the quickness of the challenger would have allowed it to keep away from the attacks of the pack leader. As it was, the surrounding spectators gave little room to maneuver. It was only a matter of time before those devastatingly pointed teeth connected in lethal fashion.
The brown wolf appeared to recognize this as well. The next time jaws grazed its hindquarters, it sprang back with a counterattack, catching the black wolf by surprise, connecting with a bite to the shoulder.
The pack leader jerked away, flailing, but its attacker’s grip could not be dislodged. The brown’s short snout appeared made for holding onto opponents. A rumble growl escaped the larger wolf—a threat, or maybe a promise. When its opponent refused to back down, it threw itself onto its side, sandwiching the brown wolf between its body and the ground.
The smaller wolf let go with a shrill whimper. But it was still pinned by its foe, wriggling, unable to escape. The black wolf howled triumphantly, then wrapped its mouth around the brown’s neck.
Zeph let loose with a pair of throwing daggers, catching the pack leader between ribs and eliciting a short cry. A second set of blades followed, stitching their way across the black fur and sending the pack leader writhing in the dirt.
A host of growls erupted from the pack. Teeth bared.
Copius shook his dying torch. “Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.”
“It’s not over,” said Daen.
The giant black wolf was staggering to its feet. It shook itself as if it had emerged from water, then let out a ferocious howl toward the moon.
When the combatants engaged once more, it was the challenger that appeared spent and done. The pack leader used its larger frame to dominate as they wrestled.
Zeph tore his eyes away as the other wolves momentarily surged toward them, snarling and snapping their teeth. They were sent back to their brothers yelping and smelling of burnt flesh, but they wouldn’t be held off for long. The wood of his torch was nearing its end. Behind him, the campfire had diminished to a size best for cooking meat.
He risked a glance toward the contest. There was no fight left in the smaller wolf. It lay still, ready to be finished. The pack leader sniffed at it.
“Get up,” Daen urged.
The black’s mouth parted, looking for purchase on a sensitive area when the short snout of the brown wolf darted up, latching onto the folds of its opponent’s neck. Instinctively, the black pulled way, ripping apart its own neck as the challenger kept its hold. Blood gushed. The encounter ended without a whimper.
Rising to its feet, the brown wolf gave a long, high-pitched howl. Its brethren joined in answering the call. Another howl, another chorus in response. This repeated several times until it turned and led the wolf pack into the depths of the forest.
As the sound of the retreating wolves faded, Zeph crooked his arms around his companions’ shoulders.
“I always say nothing beats a little bit of exercise before sleep.”
Copius gave a short yawn. “Except maybe a longer sleep.”
“You will have to wait on that,” said Daen. “I believe you two hold last watch.”
“Is that so?” Zeph faked an outraged expression until he couldn’t hold it in any longer. He burst out laughing through his nose, and the others joined inAfter such a tense encounter, it was what they needed—that and some good news.
Selgrin emerged from the forest with a slight limp and a grim expression.
“Nice job,” said Zeph. “For a second there, I thought you were a goner.”
Selgrin stared back in confusion.
It was obvious from Sel’s reaction he was not the wolf that had saved them. Apparently they had been spectators caught in a rivalry between two opposing wolves.
Cahrin filled the awkward silence. “Did you find Biltrin?”
Selgrin shook his head. “I couldn’t pick up his scent. If I’d thought to change forms earlier…”
“It is not your fault,” said Daen. “It was I who insisted we kept to the woods.”
“And who knows what would have happened if we’d stuck to the road? We might all be dead,” Selgrin said.
“Or we might be camping restfully with Biltrin, less than a day behind the king.”
“Dela spun Biltrin’s thread long before any of us were born,” said Zeph. “If he’s dead, there is nothing you could have done to change the outcome.”
“If he’s dead,” said Cahrin, “then we’ve failed our mission. Nastadra and the Western Kingdoms will go to war and Azren will have two less armies to worry about.”
The seriousness of her words struck them all. It was like Darseer Caspar said, while Dela weaved the length of the threads, the consequences were not preordained. If only Biltrin had shared his knowledge, maybe they could have completed the mission.
Selgrin brushed past Zeph on the way to his sleeping area. “Your watch.”
“So I’ve heard,” he mumbled back.
Dawn was breaking, and Zeph stretched his arm to the sky with a yawn. He felt good, all things considered. If they didn’t linger—and hundreds of angry wolves would provide ample incentive—they would leave the forest before the next nightfall.
They were packing up the last of their gear when a bedraggled Biltrin came into view. He carried his breastplate and wavered as he walked. Scratches and scabs covered his exposed body like words on a parchment.
“Biltrin!” Zeph trotted out to greet him. “You crazy old fool, I knew you’d make it back to us.” Knew might have been too strong a word—but he had been hopeful.
“Most of me did,” Biltrin replied. He looked as if he could barely stand.
“Look, we both have scratches.” Zeph pointed to his arm proudly.
“Biltrin’s got you beat, I’m afraid,” Selgrin observed drily. “Seems they used him as a claw sharpener.”
“Not a very good one, at that. Guess that’s why they stopped.” Biltrin gave a pained smile. “Look, I’ve something to say. It’s against a soldier’s honor to disregard an order, but you’ve all fought as comrades at my side. Even went after me when I ran off like some green, cockeyed recruit. You all ought to know what this business is about.”
He settled to the ground next to the dwindling fire and beckoned them over. “Now gather round, cuz I ain’t saying it twice.”
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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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