Chapter 43 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
The Crow’s Message
Raven had expected a death sentence. What he got was his own bulstan keeper: an imposing warden who watched over him even during his sleep, never more than a dozen steps away. No longer was Raven a guest. He was trapped, unable to leave the confines of the campsite.
If that wasn’t enough, Gyste had been acting like a spoiled child, avoiding even the simplest attempt at conversation. This was unfortunate. Raven had grown to accept the kobold’s company. In fact, the days prior were the first in memory that he welcomed anyone’s presence. Now he was very much on his own, something he had become accustomed to before meeting Gyste. Something he would get used to again.
He came to some clear conclusions during this time of solitude: He had never served the Afflicted One. And even if he had somehow been complicit to the dark dealings of Azren, it did not change his present determination to kill Azren and all his followers. Simply knowing this put his mind at ease, allowing him to focus on his next course of action.
It was early evening. The latest message from Azren had arrived. Gyste was in his tent when Raven entered holding a cup of tea. He appeared troubled.
“Bad news?” inquired Raven.
“Not all is going according to plan.” Gyste accepted the offered tea, inhaling a deep breath of the aroma before taking a long sip, his eyes glazing over in satisfaction. “Ah, you certainly make grequin better than I. You always did.”
Raven was nonplussed by the last statement. The conversation invariably came back to the way things had been, or at least how Gyste said they had been.
“Any fool can make grequin tea with the right ingredients,” he said.
Gyste gave a low chortle. “I believe that was an insult.”
“Take it as you will.”
“I have missed our banter. And… I’m sorry for the way I’ve been treating you.” He paused, then took on a more serious tone. “You know they have all given up on you. Even Azren. I alone believe you will return to us. If that dogar cretin breathes a word of your presence to the master, it could cost me my life.”
Raven stared back coldly.
“Don’t you have anything to say?” asked Gyste as he probed Raven’s expression over his cup of tea. It was only with each other they could expose their faces without drawing attention. “An apology, perhaps? Or at least a promise you will not again put me in danger?”
Raven let out a deep, silent breath. He had traveled with Gyste to gain information. It was time he completed his objective.
“Tell me Azren’s plans.” His eyes moved to the parchment resting on the kobold’s lap.
“I see you’re insistent on getting me into trouble.” It was said in a lighthearted manner—quite likely the last thing he would say that way. “If only I could share it with you, perhaps it would lessen my burden. But not until I am sure of your allegiance.”
Gyste gave a short cough.
“That is how it begins,” intoned Raven.
“How what begins?”
“The first symptom of nagali poisoning is the cough. Then your chest feels like it’s contracting. Death follows shortly.”
Gyste looked down at his near empty cup in disbelief. “You would not.”
“You do not know me as you claim.” He tapped a metal vial fastened to his belt. “I have the antidote to the poison. I suggest you answer my question while your words are still discernible.”
The shocked expression on the kobold’s face turned to acceptance. “I guess it’s I who was wrong about you, Raven.” Gyste shook his head sadly. “I would have told you everything anyway, once you had come back to us. But it seems whatever has tainted your mind is not so easily cleansed.”
A fit of coughing overcame the kobold for several seconds, and his eyes teared up.
“Straight to the point,” he said hoarsely. “Azren’s forces are on the march, as you may have guessed. Yet the master has suffered some setbacks. He has decided—” His sentence ended with a violent hack that doubled him over. “Go ahead and read it yourself.”
He pressed the parchment into Raven’s hands. Reading it sent a tremble through him, knowing that it came from the Afflicted One.
“Outside,” he ordered. He followed Gyste through a slit in the tent, tucking the parchment into his belt. “Tell the bulstan to go back to their master.”
Gyste turned to Raven with pleading eyes. “If they return to Azren, he will know something is amiss. I could—” He paused to stifle a cough. “I could be punished quite horribly.”
“Perhaps for old time’s sake.” Raven’s uncompassionate stare was the only answer he received. “Of course. I’ll do what you ask.”
The kobold called the bulstan over. Without hesitation, they started out northward, all but Raven’s assigned warden which took up its previous position, watching and waiting.
“Why does it not leave?” asked Raven.
“Go, now.” The order was clear, yet still the bulstan ignored it. Gyste shrugged. “I believe it is following a directive from Azren himself. My orders—” He interrupted himself with several short coughs, ending with a long one that gave the impression a lung was about to be discharged. “My orders are secondary to his.”
“So it seems.” Raven’s gaze followed the retreating bulstan until they disappeared into the night.
“The antidote, please, Raven.” Gyste’s voice had turned raspy.
“You do the bidding of my mortal enemy. I cannot let you live.”
“I said only that I had the antidote.”
An upheaval of coughs laid Gyste prone, arms crossed over his chest. His next words were so ragged Raven could barely understand him.
“I saved your life. I kept you from being killed.” His hand reached out toward Raven. “I believed in you.”
Raven was surprised that the plea moved him. It was as if Gyste had latched onto some piece of his past, a time when he had cared about more than merely ridding the world of Azren. He realized killing Gyste might destroy any last vestige of humanity still residing somewhere within him—and yet he convinced himself these servants of Azren were pillars that must each crumble if he was going to bring it all crashing down.
“Farewell.” He turned away so he would not see the kobold’s last dying breath.
“I… I may be your only friend.”
Until recently, he had not known what he’d been missing or the responsibilities it entailed. “Friendship is something I can ill afford.”
But even as he said it, he wondered if it had to be this way, if it had to end right now. He had learned Azren’s plans and the secrets of the gems from Gyste. Certainly there was more information to be had—for instance, details about his own past, should he let Gyste live a few more days or perhaps longer than that.
A cocoon of darkness suddenly enveloped his senses, similar to what he’d experienced in the courtyard with Kreeb, a black so pitch it smothered light and sound. He was attempting to walk his way out of it when something slammed into the back of his legs. He fell forward, pressed to the ground. Probed. Groped. A tug at his belt confirmed what Gyste was after.
He could not stop him; Gyste was too quick, too desperate. When it was over, when Raven no longer felt the pressure of a knee against his spine or the feel of sharp, greedy digits, he was left face down on the cold grass.
The blackness dissipated slowly. Raven pushed himself to a standing position. Gyste lay prone, his right hand clasped an open vial. Part of his jaw was missing. The kobold had mistakenly taken the vial of acid instead of the antidote.
He had deserved a better death. But a voice resonated in Raven’s head: Death is like a victorious battle—it does not matter how it happens, only that it happens. Gyste had died like he must. The kobold had been capable and smart. One less servant meant one more jab in the side of Azren. It was not for Raven to feel remorse.
Making for his mount, he found his departure blocked by the remaining bulstan. The creature appeared to be following multiple orders. Gyste had given him instructions to watch over him and prevent his escape, while Azren’s command had prohibited him from leaving Gyste’s company.
Raven stepped back, pulling his long, thin swords from their sheaths. The bulstan watched without outward reaction.
“I wonder,” said Raven to himself, “from where you came.” The bulstan had a warrior’s body with powerful arms and shoulders and a disfigured face. Even scarred as Raven was, he could not imagine being uglier than this bulstan. “No matter—you shall die all the same.”
He plunged both swords deep into the creature’s chest.
It let out an anguished howl. Thick, burgundy blood spilled out, running down the blade, coating Raven’s hands. That should have been the end. For any normal man, it would have been.
A meaty white fist pummeled Raven’s neck, temporarily crumpling his airway. He abandoned his swords in the bulstan’s chest, stumbling backward, gasping for air. Another blow hit him below the ribs. He doubled over. A forearm like a steel rod slammed into his ear. He struggled to breathe. Two fists pounded his back. He collapsed to the turf beside the mutilated figure of Gyste.
The beating paused, and when Raven looked up, he saw the bulstan reaching for a hefty scimitar to finish the job. He rolled to the right, feeling the wake of the falling scimitar. The next attack came quicker still. He managed to parry with his stiletto, but the bulstan knocked the dagger away, grazing his shoulder.
The landscape offered no cover. His weapons were out of reach, embedded in his foe, and illusion had been proven useless against the bulstan. He grabbed what was nearest him, Gyste’s corpse, and used it as a shield.
The scimitar struck with such force it nearly split the corpse in half. The kobold’s hand, still clutching the vial of acid, flopped. Burning liquid splashed onto Raven’s hand, a fraction of the searing agony Gyste must have felt swallowing the liquid fire.
The bulstan tossed the carcass away—once its superior, now a hindrance. It lifted the scimitar for a killing blow. Raven got up on his knees, clenching the vial he’d taken from Gyste. A final gift. He tossed the acid into the bulstan’s face. The creature dropped its weapon to grope at its white marble eyes, moaning hideously.
Raven leapt up and made for his horse. Into the saddle, hands on reins, feet in stirrups—only then did he notice the sounds of the night, loud in the absence of the creature’s cries of anguish. He glanced about to find no sign of anyone or anything.
“Gone,” he whispered.
Gone. Memories rushed back. He was no longer at the campsite but on the ledge outside his prison window. It was cold, mercilessly cold. Voices drifted to him from the other side of the wall.
“Why do you suppose he stopped?”
“Who knows? Usually they go all quiet right before they die—but I wouldn’t think so, not him.” A lock clicked; a few moments later, another. “The master said to check on him if it happens. That’s all.”
“Let’s get on with it then.”
Another lock clicked. “The master could have made it a lot easier.”
“I’ll tell him you said that.”
“You wouldn’t dare. Your knees would be knocking too loudly for him to even hear you speak. Last one—did you make sure the gate behind us is secure?”
“Yeah, Karn’s got it. We’re now officially stuck in here with him.”
“What are you afraid of? You think he’s going to break his bindings and squeeze the life out of you bare-handed?”
A final click of a lock and the door grinded open. Raven mentally readied himself for the illusion he was about to perform.
“Where is he?”
“Gone! The bars have been removed. Could he have escaped?”
“It’s a long way down.” A head poked out and looked left then right. Eyes stared straight past Raven.
Raven grabbed the guard by his chain mail and yanked him through the window to his death.
“What in Goznedra’s name?” The remaining guard made for the unlocked door and the steel portcullis behind it. “Karn, let me out. Let me out now!”
Raven came back through the window under guise of an illusion. To the guard in front of him and the one called Karn, he was Azren, draped in black, face hooded.
“Master, tell Karn to open up.” The guard clung to the portcullis, trying to lift it up.
While the illusion may not have been believable, Raven knew the guard wanted it to be true. Otherwise, he was locked alone in a room with the most dangerous of captives.
“You let him escape,” Raven said with the master’s lips. He grabbed the guard by the neck and choked him with pale hands and an iron grip until his thrashings ceased. His victim slumped to the floor.
“Raise the portcullis, Karn,” he said in the voice of Azren, “or you’ll be next.”
“Th-Those tricks won’t work with me. I’ll get the real master.”
Footsteps padded away, leaving him alone to consider the situation. The portcullis could not be raised from this side. Azren would come and exact his toll. He shuddered.
He turned back to the window, his mind already at work. If he imagined he was a bird—a giant raven—maybe, just maybe, he could convince the wind that the illusion was true. That’s what he would do—what he would have to do if he was to avoid what Azren had in store for him. With a running start, he threw himself into the night.
Raven found himself sweating, his steed shuffling anxiously beneath him. How long had he allowed himself to lose focus? He realized Gyste had been right about his failed escape, about the name Raven—probably about most of the things he’d said.
The horse whinnied nervously, a reminder it was time to leave.
He lifted the reins just as a wall of white slammed into the horse, sending them careening to the ground. He only just managed to slip his leg out of the stirrup before it was crushed beneath the horse. Its hindquarters caught the edge of his boot, pinning him in place.
The bulstan stood above him with intent to kill, and Raven was helpless to stop it.
The bulstan’s blade came down forcefully, spraying dirt and grass everywhere but missing Raven by a wide margin. He yanked at his foot to no avail as a second stroke struck the turf to the left of his ankle.
The creature grunted. Raven noticed for the first time that its face and eyes were gray everywhere the acid had touched. He stopped his struggles and lay still, reviewing his options. The scimitar came down a third and fourth time, no closer to scoring a hit but near enough to be unnerving.
The bulstan lifted its nose to the air. Carefully, Raven reached for a vial at his belt and twisted the cork, unleashing the smell of the sewage he had gathered in the Undercity. It caught the attention of the bulstan, whose own body gave off the aroma of old vegetables stored in a box for a month. Raven could not help thinking it must have sensed a kindred spirit.
The bulstan hovered above him, sniffing, and then leaned in. Its powder-white body was now inches away, smooth with chiseled muscles—a statue come to life. The hilts of Raven’s swords protruded invitingly from its chest, but as soon as Raven claimed them, the bulstan would know exactly where he was. It would be a contest of speed.
Raven plucked the blades from the chest cavity. The bulstan gave a tortured moan, then lunged. Raven did not strike. No time for that. Instead, he redirected the points upwards. The weight of the creature came crushing down on top of Raven. Blood sheeted across his face.
It took a moment to realize he was unharmed. In the creature’s eagerness to kill, it had thrown itself onto Raven’s blades, practically decapitating itself.
Raven pushed the corpse to one side. Its alabaster skin glowed in the light of the moon, just a lifeless husk, its viscous blood seeping into the grass reeds like mud. He pried his foot free from the fallen horse. The stallion had been knocked unconscious and was more thunderstruck than anything. With coaxing, it stood and took a few cursory steps.
Raven lingered over the remains of Gyste, the only companion he could remember who did not fear, loathe, or pity him. Not so long ago, Gyste had given a carefree chuckle; now the kobold was little more than food for scavengers.
He blamed Azren for the murder of Gyste. It was he who had forced Raven’s hand and he who must pay the ultimate price.
His resolve stiffened. His heart added another layer of stone around it. He felt good—better than good. His life’s mission shone more brightly than ever. He would kill Azren as sure as the trees reached for the sky, as sure as he breathed. As sure as Gyste would never rise again.
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