Chapter 47 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
“Too many moving parts,” Sel grumbled under his breath as he edged his horse along the road.
At least, that’s what his father would have said. As a tinkerer of sorts, he believed the simpler, the better. Selgrin couldn’t agree more. Take this plan of Daen’s. As a whole it had merit, but on closer inspection it was a disaster waiting to happen. One misstep or unanticipated event and they all could end up dead.
The worst of it was relying on Raven. The man would turn against them in an instant if it got him one drop closer to accomplishing his personal agenda.
Sel brushed back the sides of his charcoal cloak and tried to feel like a kobold. He had met one long ago, when the creature was trying to recruit the dogar to his master’s cause. Unfortunately, Sel never saw the kobold’s face, so replicating its clothes and stature were about the best he could do. And while the accompanying voice wouldn’t be an exact match, Selgrin was not inept. He certainly could mimic the typical kobold’s dry, squeaky tone, and that should be enough for his purposes. The real trick was not to be too obvious about anything.
Making sure his cowl was pulled low over his face, Selgrin approached the PIKE sentry. It was getting late in the day, and the sentry slouched as if he’d been at his post since dawn. He took a deep, calming breath before he began.
“My name is Simerol,” he said in a raspy screech. “I’m here to see Rives.”
“Your weapons,” the sentry requested.
Sel pressed his hands to his belt protectively.
The guard persisted. “Nobody sees Master Rives without relinquishing their weapons.”
Selgrin reluctantly gave up his short sword and dagger. Already he was having a bad feeling about this.
The PIKE sentry signaled to a comrade and sent him to give word to Rives. When he returned, it was with two men on horseback. One was Rives. The other appeared to be human, tall and thin with wavy hair and sunken eyes. Selgrin would have bet his good hand he was another dogar.
“Where’s Gyste?” asked Rives.
A shiver ran down Sel’s spine. No turning back now. “Are you sure you wish to discuss that here?”
Rives sneered. “Let’s walk.” He and his comrade dismounted, leading the way down the main path. Once past the ridge, they headed toward the wooded area, where they would have privacy.
“Now, answer my question,” ordered Rives.
“Gyste had other more important business to attend to. He instructed me to deliver this. It came from Azren himself.” Selgrin pulled a rock from his pocket with a parchment wrapped around it.
Rives greedily peeled the message free and read it. Disappointment crept onto his face.
“What does it say?” asked his companion.
“Azren thinks it is not the time to dispose of the king.” Rives crumpled the parchment before turning angrily on Sel. “Does he not realize that this is our best chance?”
“Would you like me to convey that to him, Belatreeg?”
His eyes flashed. “Belatreeg is the name of a sniveling child. I am Rives now, the head of the most powerful merchant consortium on Draza. My associate here is Wertlin. And spare me your snide questions. You kobolds are all the same. I do not wish to relay anything to Azren. If he won’t help me, I will take matters into my own hands.”
“And do what exactly?”
A dangerous look crossed Rives’s face. “Where did you say you met up with Gyste?”
“Just outside of No Man’s Land.”
“And how many bulstan did he have with him at the time?”
“Four,” Sel replied.
“Do you know what I like most about bulstan, Simerol?”
Selgrin stayed quiet, assuming the question was meant to be rhetorical, and thankfully, Rives continued.
“They obey without question. Why do they do that, Simerol?” His tone was mocking, but it was clear this time he expected an answer.
Selgrin’s sole experience with the white warriors was at the farmhouse. He had no knowledge of their disposition. “They fear Azren, of course.”
“Really? That’s interesting. I know you and your kind incessantly grovel at Azren’s feet out of fear, but the bulstan… I always assumed obedience was bred into them.”
Selgrin gave a short laugh, only it was not in character. Instead of coming out dry and wheezing, it was more like a hacking cough.
Rives twitched in response. “Let me see your face, Simerol.”
And there it was. He would have to choose his next words carefully. “Don’t be foolish. It would be dangerous to reveal myself, even here.”
“I will take my chances. Just a peek. The only other kobold I have seen up close is Gyste.” Rives advanced so that the top of his shoulders brushed up against Sel’s angled crown. “Are you all so ugly?”
Before anything more could be said, Rives yanked back Sel’s hood, revealing the face of the dogar underneath.
The surprise in Rives’s eyes was priceless—as was his keeling over and gulping for air in response to Selgrin’s sucker punch to the gut. Another time, Sel might have basked in the moment. Not today.
His first few steps felt good. He had a head start, and the edge of the forest was not far off. But his short kobold legs could not pump fast enough, and Wertlin ran him down from behind. He slammed into dirt and rocks. Harsh hands grabbed his shoulder.
He twisted to face his adversary. Wertlin stared down at him with a serious expression backed by dark, unemotional eyes. Calmly, he pressed Selgrin down as if he were holding a bag of apples underwater.
The diminutive kobold body was no good in a wrestling match, so Selgrin decided upon another. His skin sprouted gray fur, nails became claws, and his nose and mouth turned into the snout of a wolf. At least that night in the woods had served a purpose: a lifetime’s worth of wolves at his disposal.
Selgrin attacked, blindly raking his adversary with newly formed claws, closing his mouth around what felt like an arm. The grasp on him fell away. Wertlin called out in agony.
When Selgrin’s vision cleared, he saw he wasn’t the only one changing his form. He moved to sink teeth into his enemy’s midsection, but it felt like he was trying to crumple a copper bowl. The man before him was no longer tall and gangly but squat with a warrior’s frame wearing steel-plated armor. Only the most expensive yiltoline cloth could change its composition to maintain rigidity under duress. Though it lacked the true strength of steel, it provided enough protection for Wertlin to mount an attack of his own.
Using his weight advantage, Wertlin held Selgrin down and shoved his dagger at him. Selgrin couldn’t break free. He squirmed. The blade pierced his shoulder. He yelped in pain. Spun onto his side, he was pinned down with a knee. There would be no wriggling away. Wertlin pulled the dagger from Sel’s furry frame and raised it high.
Selgrin snapped his jaws and flailed his claws, anything that would save him.
Too many moving parts. The thought stuck in his head. Everything had to be just right, and Selgrin was afraid he had taken his role too far.
The blade was thrust downward.
“Stop,” a voice gasped from behind Wertlin. “I need him…alive.”
“Are you ready?” Cahrin asked Copius. She wasn’t even sure if she was ready. Since losing the guidance of her master, her summonings had not all gone as planned. Then again, this was only a tremal. What could go wrong with summoning a tremal?
The sun was just beginning to set over the Performer’s Area, where a small crowd was watching a juggler throw balls into the air, then add an axe and a canteen into the mix. Behind him, a man draped in emerald satin swallowed a curved sword.
Cahrin used a boot to mark off an area close to the royal pavilion and court of His Majesty King Reginald. The pavilion spanned the length of eight merchant aisles, looking very much like a castle in tent form. Guards were stationed every twenty paces except at the main entrance, where a long row of them stood almost shoulder to shoulder.
It’s going to take quite a distraction to get Daen and Biltrin in there.
“I asked if you’re ready,” she repeated more curtly than she intended.
Copius was staring at a water elementalist snaking a bubbling globe through the air and then unraveling it until it resembled a flowing stream. “Yeah, um…sure.”
“You don’t look it.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, abashed. “How should I look?”
“You know—tough, like a monk of the Auburn Order.” This would not work if Copius stood there petting the tremal. There needed to be danger and the hint of bloodshed.
“I am a monk of the Auburn Order.” He straightened his back and smoothed the formal robes he had put on for this occasion. “I-I just don’t know about this.”
“What are you worried about?”
“Say there’s a monk of The One in the crowd. If word gets out I was doing this, I’ll never get another chance at Ebony.”
“Another chance?” She raised an eyebrow. “I thought no monk would sponsor you.”
“I-I-I couldn’t get one…the s-second time.” He looked miserable. “I failed the Ebony test so completely I was d-demoted to Azure and my sponsor sanctioned.”
Poor Copius. No wonder he was out of sorts. The Council’s accusations were not doing him any favors with his order.
“It is only recently I even made it back to Auburn. N-N-Not that it matters much now.”
“I should say not,” she said. “Imagine losing your chance at Ebony but averting a war.”
“When you say it that way…”
“Now try puffing out your chest a little.”
He sucked in his stomach and pulled back his shoulders.
“And do you have to wear these?” She pulled off his wire-rimmed spectacles.
“Only if I need to see.”
She didn’t expect he would in order to spot the tremal coming at him. “I don’t even know how you keep them from falling off your face.”
He shrugged helplessly.
“Now try scowling.” She eyed his attempt critically. “Really Copius, I’ve seen wolf cubs fiercer.”
“I’m—I’m trying.” Copius returned glumly.
“Oh, Cope.” He’s so sensitive. “I’m just saying you look more like a nice guy than a tough guy. You’re still a talented warrior. In fact, you would be my first choice as an ally in battle.”
“You mean that?”
“Of course I do.” She ran a hand through her hair and gave Copius a final once-over. “It’s just you worry so much about what others think, you don’t see what’s plainly in front of you.”
“It’s kind of hard without my glasses.”
“Know this, Copius Crux: you were born to be an Ebony. I’ve known it since we first met, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of your order does as well.”
Copius appeared about to respond when he was accosted by Norweegee. The xaffel had crept out of hiding and onto the monk’s shoulder to deliver a pointy talon poke.
“Ouch! Stop that.” Copius’s lip curled as he swatted at the creature.
“That’s much better,” Cahrin said. “Now just try to keep that look.”
Corralling the xaffel back into her pocket, she began her pitch. “Get ready to be amazed and entertained like never before,” she called. Men began stopping in the street to stare and listen. “You are about to witness something that has only once before been attempted, something so dangerous it’s outlawed in the northern lands.”
Cahrin raised her voice a decibel. “Behold a battle between a man and the most deadly of beasts. The man is a monk of The One, a survivor of more than a hundred battles. He has traveled the length of Draza, seeking out the most vile and savage of creatures and killing them with his bare hands.”
“Cahrin, I don’t believe that’s true,” whispered Copius.
She replied under her breath, “Stop listening and start flexing your muscles or something.”
“The beast,” she continued, “is none other than the ferocious owlbear The two will fight each other in mortal combat until only one is left standing!”
By this time, a reasonable crowd was forming. While not yet the diversion she was hoping for, it was a start.
“Where’s the owlbear?” called one of the spectators.
“I shall use magic to call it forth from my homeland in the north. It takes great effort to transport such a creature to this modest piece of dirt we have marked off for battle, so please be patient while you listen to the boasting words of our challenger.”
Cahrin pushed Copius forward toward the center of the spectators as she began her magic. In truth, she was not summoning a creature from the north. Like all summoners, she could only bring a creature from Otherworld—in this case, a tremal. Though she called it an owlbear thinking that sounded much more beastly, and its appearance reminded her of a cross between the two animals.
She was halfway through the signs when she heard a boo escape from the crowd. A partially eaten piece of fruit shot past her. In the back of her mind, she could hear Copius reciting the Fifty-Six Truths of The One.
Is that the best he can come up with? She couldn’t worry about that now. Concentration was the hallmark of a good summoning.
When the tremal first appeared, ghostlike about six feet from Copius, the monk nearly leapt out of his sandals. This was greeted by hoots of laughter from the spectators. Awe and fear quickly followed as the creature became flesh and blood before them. It walked on two legs, towering above the crowd. Its brown fur was long and coarse, and its girth made Copius appear gaunt by comparison. Most awful to those seeing it for the first time was its face. Its eyes and ears resembled those of a bear, but instead of a snout there was a giant, curved beak.
If any of the spectators had known the creature’s true disposition, they would probably have come over to pat her on the stomach—yes, she sensed the tremal was definitely a female. Cahrin wrapped her will tenderly around the gentle giant’s spirit and asked her to kindly play-wrestle with her friend in the reddish-brown robes.
She did not get the calm acquiescence she expected. The tremal snapped back with a defiant will of her own while frantically surveying her new surroundings.
Cahrin had never known a tremal to be aggressive before. Her books had always described them as docile with strong maternal tendencies. Of course. The desperate searching, the unprovoked hostility—the creature had been taken away from her children.
This tragedy was too late to be reversed, the stakes too high. If she were to dismiss the tremal and go through the summoning again, she’d lose half her crowd—and there was no telling if a different one or the same one would appear.
She squeezed the tremal’s spirit to get her attention. I need you to wrestle nicely with the creature next to you, she told it soothingly. Soon it will be over. Soon you will be back with your young ones.
The tremal listened this time, fixing her attention on Copius as she shuffled forward amidst the oohs and ahhs of the crowd. Copius bent his head and squinted. Oh my, maybe I shouldn’t have taken his glasses.
The two faced off hardly a length from each other, neither committing. Copius stared, neck craned forward, a look of constipation on his face. The tremal pointed her beak at him. After a few impatient shouts from the onlookers, Copius ran awkwardly forward and grabbed the tremal around the midsection. His hands could not quite touch each other. Still, his legs churned as he pressed his shoulder into the wall of fur.
The results was something between comedic and painful to watch. The tremal stood tall, scanning the area as if she did not register Copius had latched onto her. Some laughs from the spectators turned to jeers after a lengthy period where Copius made grunting sounds as he strained to move the tremal an inch.
Do something, she instructed the tremal. Much more of this and they’d have no spectators at all.
Thick arms encircled Copius and lifted him off the ground. Grunts turned to an inward wheeze. The tremal squeezed until his back arched at an irregular angle. Those watching gasped. Cahrin was afraid something would snap. What a horrid mistake this is turning out to be.
Cahrin tightened her will around the spirit of the tremal in much the same way Copius was being crushed. Stop. Stop. Stop! she ordered, applying all the pressure she could muster.
Copius was grimacing in pain, his torso appeared ready to crumple. Finally the tremal relented and dropped him to the ground. The crowd booed, to Cahrin’s horror; they’d been hoping to see her friend cave inward like the meat pies he was so fond of.
The tremal turned and fixed her with a baleful stare, silently screaming for her children. Cahrin realized this could not continue. The normally amiable creature had the fortitude of an ox, and she would not be easily deterred. Much more of this and Copius would end up severely injured or worse.
“Listen up, Northerner,” came a voice from behind Cahrin.
“Yes,” she acknowledged, her eyes still focused on the contest. The tremal faced Copius, who was stumbling to his feet. A few cheers erupted from the spectators as the next round of combat appeared imminent.
“This fight needs to end.”
She found one of the guards from the king’s pavilion giving her a menacing stare. She smiled pleasantly back. “For what reason?”
“It’s causing too much of a ruckus.” He thumped his spear against the ground for emphasis.
The guard was correct. The crowd was perfectly out of hand. The sea of onlookers reached the wall of the king’s pavilion, jostling one another in a manner more like a mob than spectators. Even in her area, sweaty bodies were pressing toward her, making it uncomfortable.
“Yes, I’ll certainly try,” she said. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the tremal charging Copius.
“If you don’t stop it soon, I’ll do it for you.”
She couldn’t imagine a greater spectacle than that, and she pursed her lips in delight. “Please do.”
Vying for a better view, the crowd turned to forceful pushing for space, a ripple effect that sent someone’s shoulder crashing into Cahrin. She stumbled into someone else who shoved her back the other direction, over a foot and onto the ground.
Boots were all around her, kicking her, stomping on her. She tried to rise but was trampled under by the crowd. Her concentration broke, releasing the tremal and allowing it the freedom to act without retribution.
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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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