Chapter 49 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness

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Circling Copius, the owlbear appeared to loosen up, taking long, thunderous strides. He dared not get back within close quarters of the beast; his still throbbing back was a reminder of that. He shifted his feet and readied himself for the next altercation. Darkness had set in, and only a handful of torches lit their skirmish.

An awful squawking startled him. Shrill, repetitive chirps—it took him a moment to realize they came from the owlbear. On the eighth ear-pummeling screech, the creature charged with such ferocity that the entire crowd held its breath.

It was instinct, or perhaps training, that saved him. Without thinking, he used ericoun, the kertaskai ability he had mastered to ascend to the Azure Order. More intense than lightning strike, which allowed him to deliver a punch or a kick at unmatched speeds, ericoun involved short bursts of movement by the entire body. To anyone watching, it would look as though he had vanished and then appeared several feet away.

The audience gasped as the owlbear ran through the spot he vacated and obliterated a wooden pole used by acrobats earlier in the day. It spun about, confused, until it spotted Copius. It rushed him once more. Again he invoked ericoun, and again the owlbear barreled past his last position as spectators scrambled out of its way.

Copius took short, heavy breaths. The one drawback of ericoun was the toll it took on the body—and he wasn’t in peak physical condition to begin with. Strenuous exercise for him involved chasing down a food cart.

Another charge, another escape. His chest heaved, his heart hurt. He wasn’t sure how many more times he could use ericoun before collapsing from exhaustion.

The owlbear clawed the ground, preparing for its next attack, when a dangerous idea struck Copius: the kertaskai known as xo or beating heart. While monks were required to perform xo to ascend to Ebony, only a handful had truly mastered its intricacies. It involved controlling another’s heart rate—speeding it up, slowing it down, or even stopping it.

He had never attempted xo before, though he had studied how it worked. To attempt it now in these conditions would be experimental at best and at worst downright hazardous to his health. There had been a case where a monk of the Auburn Order had inadvertently stopped his own heart while attempting this kertaskai. But Copius had no other choice. He needed to strike back, to stop the owlbear. Now. For his own safety and that of the spectators. Before he was too exhausted to even try.

Now how exactly does this work again?

The owlbear exploded toward him. He raised his arm, palm quivering. A rush of wind accompanied the terrifying attack. He held his ground; if he was to be gouged by a giant beak and trampled like a hundred blades of grass, so be it. The owlbear came in a blur. Copius squinted. He had grave doubts that he had any chance of succeeding.

 

 

Zeph ducked back behind the sill.

Rives was inside the room with a lanky human who was pointing the back end of his spear into a cage. Zeph closed his eyes and focused on listening.

“Wertlin, kill the Dersimeysous and dump him in the river.”

Kill? Dump? Peeking over the sill, he saw Rives leave the room and the other man—Wertlin—turn his spear end on end and plunge it into the cage. The exclamation of pain that followed was unquestionably Sel.

By the time Wertlin could make another attack, Zeph was initiating one of his own.

He dove into the room launching a spread of throwing daggers. The first two missiles slid by the spearman’s arm, but the other found purchase in his shoulder. Zeph sprang at Wertlin, unsheathing Venytier. His best chance was to get inside the spear’s reach. The battle would be won or lost on that alone.

Wertlin understood this as well, backing up as he tried to bring his spear to bear. Zeph did not allow it. He pressed forward, raining a barrage of attacks. He cut, he stabbed, he chopped. Wertlin blocked most of his strikes, wielding the spear defensively like a staff. But he could not turn everything away. Thrusting, Zeph grazed Wertlin’s waist. A backhand drew blood across a cheek. It was only a matter of time before he scored a serious wound.

Wertlin dropped his spear low, providing an opening, and Zeph went in for the kill. Mid-lunge he realized his mistake. A free shot had been given for the opportunity to make a counterstrike—a trade he shouldn’t have allowed, a trap he shouldn’t have fallen for. Venytier narrowly missed. Wertlin snapped his spear shaft against Zeph’s temple. A flash of light preceded a descent into darkness, and when he came to, he was on his back with the point of a spear streaking toward him.

He twisted left. The spear scratched wood. A backward roll brought him to his feet on the defensive. A jab, just blocked. A slice scraped skin. Panting now. Another thrust left his ear wet and sticky. A few fingers over and Zeph would have lost an eye; a few down and he would have been finished. He was no longer too close for the spear’s bite, and Wertlin was taking full advantage.

He sprang away and bounded for the outskirts of the room. Wertlin remained patient, jabbing when the opportunity arose, but mainly waiting for Zeph to fall prey to exhaustion.

This could not go on for long. Zeph’s sweat mixed with the river water. His chest heaved, his ear a screaming reminder of what could happen should he engage.

A leap to the top of the cage put him in a better tactical position. At least he could catch his breath. Three breaths, to be exact. Enough to come up with a plan.

When the spear came angling in, he knocked it downward and used his heel to pin it to the cage. Then in the same instant that Wertlin tried to yank it free, he released his hold on it. Wertlin stumbled backward, lurching and off balance. Zeph pounced. He landed on top of his opponent, whipping Venytier to his throat. Wertlin grabbed his wrist; the blade jittered a finger’s breadth from piercing skin. Zeph sunk his weight into the dagger, edging it closer, slowly driving it home.

Wertlin groaned. His lips curled, and as his expression changed, so did his face. It became rounder. Sharp features turned craggy, like rock hewn from the mountain. His hair lengthened. His neck thickened; so did his fingers and wrists. Zeph was looking at a rogrom—renowned warriors and tireless workers. Their kind held the strength in their hands to crush a rock or crumble an assassin’s wrist.

He cried out in pain, and Venytier dropped from his grip. Meaty fingers wrapped around Zeph’s neck, and he was flipped over onto his back. Legs that ended at the knees became weights on top of flailing arms. He could not breathe. He could not budge. He could only look up at the rogrom’s stoic features as the last of the air was squeezed from him.

But the end never came. The iron grip loosened, and the rogrom’s face darkened, turning purple before his body toppled over. Zeph lay gulping air like a canteen of water. Face down beside him sprawled the rogrom corpse, a black snake latched onto the back of his neck.

Zeph propped himself up with his elbows. “What the—”

The snake unlatched and stared at Zeph, swaying with a hiss. Was he to be its next victim? Strangled to death or poisoned. When it came to Dela, if it wasn’t one thing, it was another.

Then Zeph noticed the cage was empty. The snake’s tongue shot out, its mouth curling ever so slightly upward, as if the snake were smiling.

 

 

Cahrin was in trouble, trapped beneath a tempest of boots and sandals as spectators jockeyed to watch the monk and tremal brawl. And the ghasiv said her people were barbaric. A cane jabbed painfully into her face; a boot spiked her hand. She was kneed in the spine as one spectator fell on her.

While clearly the ghasiv were tenderfoots who bartered for their food and slept in warm, soft beds, when it came to getting what they wanted, they became vile, destructive animals. She vowed that no matter how many years she lived among them, she would never succumb to their base tendencies. She was and would always be a Northerner. And no matter how many ghasiv stomped on her, she would not stay down.

She grabbed the nearest ankle and yanked its owner to the ground, dug her nails into the sandaled foot of another. Her xaffel turned just as furious, biting and slicing through anyone unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. Cahrin climbed to her feet bruised and cut and roughed up, but not held down.

A ghasiv invaded her newly acquired space and discovered an elbow invading his jaw. Others shoved and jostled her, angling for a better view. She was half tempted to send the tremal chirping through the ranks of the spectators just to teach them a lesson. That was before she got her bearings and realized more urgent matters required her attention.

The battle between two pacifists had turned into a fight to the death. The tremal was barreling toward Copius. He vanished from its path, reappearing farther away. Impressive, but she could tell it was not without consequence. Copius’s entire body heaved with exhaustion. The tremal clawed the ground before going after her friend once more. He stood firm, holding up a hand as if that would save him.

She could not allow this to continue. If he was hurt, it would be on her head.

Stop! she commanded, squeezing her will around the tremal’s spirit so tightly she worried she might kill her outright. And the tremal listened, freezing inches from Copius. He beamed like a simpleton, turning and bowing to his audience as if it were all his doing. Idiot. She felt the tremal longing to move, extending her claw to tear Copius’s tender and exposed neck. No!

Then she noticed more trouble: a group of guards wading through the crowd behind the tremal, drawing weapons. Cahrin’s heart swelled for the gentle giant whose aggression was borne out of love for her children. So sorry was all Cahrin could convey.

The tremal sensed the approaching danger, but she did not know which way to turn; the guards were approaching from all sides. Swords raised, spears leveled. Go home! Steel struck from multiple directions, slicing and piercing through fur and flesh, meeting no resistance as the tremal turned translucent, fading into nothing right before them.

 

 

Daen woke to a wet rag dabbing at his face. His bleary eyes made out a girl standing over him, her red hair tickling his cheek. For a moment, he thought it was Elise.

A booming voice broke through his fog. “Good. He’s awake. Give him room. Give him room!”

It took a moment for Daen to realize he was on his back. The woman tending to him stepped away to reveal he was inside a large room of a tent.

He struggled to his elbows. Before him was King Reginald, seated on an intricately carved throne built for travel. A velvet robe in the blue of his kingdom covered a black doublet with large gold buttons and a maroon silk shirt. Platinum and gold rings adorned his plump fingers, one inset with an enormous blue stone that matched the color of his robes and leggings.

Surrounding the king stood more Western Kingdom guards than Daen could easily count—and the king’s advisor, Master Hedun.

Daen picked himself up and took a knee. His head swam from the effort. Biltrin was already showing fealty beside him.

“Rise,” His Majesty commanded. “Give me your names.” The king looked toward the man-at-arms first.

“Biltrin Gronth, corporal in the lord’s army.”

“Daen Thornver, prince of Nalesc.”

Master Hedun folded his arms in front of him. “That is not what he said before.”

“That’s quite enough.” The king turned his eyes to Daen. “Daen, you say. The name sounds familiar, but King Lywrin has six sons. It is hard for one of my years to keep track of them all.”

Though the king’s voice was vibrant, he was well past middle age. While wavy and plentiful, his hair was white like snow. A frame that might once have been chiseled was now bloated.

“Actually, he has seven sons and two daughters,” Daen replied.

The king nodded ruefully. “That he did. I have had my fill with one, though Peldrin always was such an active child. I gather by now it’s the grandkids keeping the old coot busy.”

“As you might imagine, sire.” Daen took an instant liking to the king, who was not half as weary-minded as he let on.

“I do not mince words. So I ask you, are you truly King Lywrin’s son? Chardise help you if you are lying.”

“Yes, his youngest.”

“So how is your father?” he asked amicably. “It’s been a while since I hefted this oversized body of mine to the Isle of Nalesc. I understand he’s making progress on the fleet.”

It was encouraging to hear the king speak in such a way. His father and King Reginald had had some sort of falling out at one time, and Daen did not know how deeply it ran. Apparently absence did make the heart grow fonder.

“I would not know, Your Majesty. I have been a stranger to my home for more than three years.” A wave of nostalgia welled up inside him, giving further evidence to that time-honored saying.

“Three years!” The king exclaimed with such force he went into a fit of coughing. When it was over, his eyes were watering. “Why would a son leave his father for so long?”

“I was avoiding an ill-fated match.” To be with Elise, more precisely. Now that he had revealed himself, the Nalescian soldiers searching for him would force him back to the isle to wed. It was a responsibility he had been fleeing far too long, certain a new life would spell the death for whatever remnants of Elise that still resided inside him.

Master Hedun cleared his throat diplomatically, although Daen could see the man was highly annoyed. “How can we be sure that anything he says is true?”

The king gave Daen an apologetic look. “My most irritating advisor has a point.”

“I will prove it.” Daen remembered the king as a youth, lean and full of vigor—a far cry from this version. “When I was young, my brother Perute and I often watched you and father in the late evenings after everyone else had left. We would spy from one of the staircases that flanked the great hall, listening while you two reminisced of glorious battles and equally glorious women.”

The king looked thoughtful. “If you are not of Lywrin’s blood, you are clever, my son. Yet this information alone does not prove you a prince. You could have visited the castle to know its lay. It is not uncommon for kings to speak well into the night, and all talk eventually leads to war and women.” He chuckled. “I cannot say I’m convinced.”

“I remember,” Daen continued, “one particular instance when a lord of the Western Kingdoms spoke adoringly of a lady with long black tresses that reached to her ankles, a beauty like none other, a woman named—”

“That’s quite enough.” The king’s chubby cheeks were burning.

Daen could not help a small smile. “As you wish, sire.”

“Tell me, Prince Daen of Nalesc, what brings you here?”

“I was asked to accompany this man-at-arms until he was brought before you. He has vital information, the type others would go to great lengths to keep hidden.”

The king turned to Biltrin. “Out with it.”

He began tentatively, but once Biltrin got going, his account of the caravan raid sounded much as it had back in the woods.

When he was done, Master Hedun was at the king’s ear. “I told you this would be a waste of your time.”

The king held up a staying hand to his advisor. “I do say that is an incredible tale.”

“On my life, it’s the truth,” said Biltrin.

“Ask him, Your Majesty, what proof he has for what he speaks,” said Master Hedun.

King Reginald looked vexed. “I was getting to that.”

“Of course, my liege.”

“My advisor doesn’t know when to stop advising, though I regretfully admit his counsel is useful at times. Corporal, I suppose you have some proof of this.”

“It is a matter of record I was there, my lord.”

Master Hedun crossed his arms matter-of-factly. “A record that counts you missing or a deserter.”

“Is there anyone who can back up your story?” His Majesty asked.

Biltrin shook his head. “The others… They are all dead.”

The king turned to Daen. “You believe what he says is true?”

“I do, sire.”

The king let out a long sigh. “I too would like it to be so. Then I could finally convince my son of Rives’s true character—a conniving son of a bastard, if I ever saw one. But I cannot be blind to the reality of the situation.”

He placed a hand on his stomach. “You know, I was not always this way, old and well fed. There was a time when I led men into battle. So I know a thing or two about the ways of war. And what strikes me as odd about this story is that all my soldiers died, every last one—except you.” He pointed at Biltrin. “It would seem the luck of Tymius was on your side, or that’s what you might have me believe. I say it’s just not so. If your account is true, how could these bandit mercenaries have been so careless as to allow a survivor?”

Both Daen and Biltrin stared back at the king in silence.

“Unless you can answer that question, I’m afraid I cannot believe this story of yours.”

Daen recognized they had come to an impasse. He knew of only one way to convince His Majesty. He turned to Biltrin. “Tell him. Tell him why you survived.”

Biltrin shunned Daen’s gaze. Master Hedun looked fiendishly satisfied, and Daen was certain that at any moment they’d be asked to leave.

He could not allow it to end here. Too many lives rested on their getting through to the king. “Then I will say it, though I do not feel righteous in making it known. Sire, those men of Rives’s were not careless. As far as they were concerned, your men were dead or mortally wounded.” Biltrin looked up at Daen with an almost sorrowful expression. “Only they did not count on one thing: that Corporal Biltrin is a lycanthrope.”

Astonishment erupted throughout the room. Even the guards, trained not to eavesdrop, gave away their indiscretion with sharp intakes of breath.

“That’s preposterous!” exclaimed Master Hedun over the shoulder of the King. “It’s just one outrageous lie after another.”

“Really, Hedun, that’s my ear you’re hollering into.” King Reginald palmed an ear in annoyance. “So you say a conspiracy by the head of PIKE. Mercenaries dressed as soldiers of Nastadra. And let’s throw in a lycanthrope for good measure. This is either one fantastic yarn or an elaborate string of events that even the bards will have difficulty singing about.” He chuckled. “I’ll give you one thing, son of Lywrin, you adequately answered why this man could be alive. Of course, now you have the tougher task of convincing me what your friend is.”

Daen hoped he was not digging himself a deeper hole. Everything was riding on this. “Go ahead, Biltrin, convince him.”

Biltrin returned a stone-faced stare. “If you mean for me to turn into a wolf before your eyes, you’ll be waiting a very long time. Do you know what they do to lycanthropes in the Western Kingdoms? They don’t keep them in the army. Kill them on sight is what they do.”

“Maybe there is a reason for that,” said Daen. He dove at Biltrin while drawing the dagger hidden in his boot. Hands grabbed at him, but he managed to jab his weapon through an opening in Biltrin’s armor near his shoulder blade. The guards dragged him back, but not before he had yanked his dagger savagely free, uprooting flesh and causing blood to flow.

King Reginald raised his voice. “What is the meaning of this?”

Daen was disarmed and forced to his knees.

“Two nights ago, we were in the Huntsman Woods,” he said, breathing heavily. “We were surrounded by wolves—hundreds of them. Biltrin charged into their midst and was lost to us. But later that night, when the wolves were about to feast on our hides, a brown wolf arrived out of nowhere to our rescue. He fought the leader of the pack and secured our safety. That wolf was him. It was Biltrin.”

“Your Majesty,” said Master Hedun, “must we continue to listen to this drivel? It is common knowledge that lycanthropes were wiped out long ago.”

“I would not have believed it myself, but the injuries the brown wolf sustained also appear on Biltrin,” Daen continued. “He received claw marks on his arms and face. You could see them for yourselves, if you care to.”

Biltrin was back on his feet, injured but not terribly so. The king squinted to make out the faint lines that remained of his wounds.

“Now look at me.” Daen too had cuts from the wolves. “These are the same type of injuries, made on the same day—only Biltrin’s have nearly healed. It will be another week before mine look like that.”

Master Hedun stepped forward. “Enough of this. We know nothing about these wounds. The king will not be swayed by charlatan’s tricks.”

“Is the cut I gave him a charlatan’s trick?” responded Daen. “Examine it for yourself, my lord.”

King Reginald stood, and the level of tension in the room rose with him. “Come.” He beckoned to Biltrin.

Biltrin reluctantly approached the king as ordered.

“Now let me have a look.”

Biltrin unlatched the armor plates and turned around so that the wound Daen had inflicted on him could be seen. His shoulder was red with blood.

“Marta, clean this up.” The king motioned for the redhead who had tended Daen. She approached with a wet rag, dabbing until only the gash remained.

The king stared at it, marveling. Even from Daen’s perspective, the wound looked as if it had been delivered hours ago, not minutes. King Reginald pressed the sides of the wound together, attempted unsuccessfully to make it bleed.

“Amazing,” he said.

Master Hedun stared blankly with unbelieving eyes, while Biltrin fidgeted, obviously uncomfortable at the attention.

“I’m not some animal. I’m a corporal in the Western Kingdoms army.”

“No, you are not an animal, nor are you human—but your actions, above all, betray you as honorable.” The king motioned to the guards. “Now let go of Lywrin’s son, or I’ll be hearing about it until my death.”

The room quieted in anticipation for what the king would say.

“I believe you could have been there,” he said to Biltrin. “In fact, if my instincts are on the mark, I think the whole crazy story is true. I never did trust that Rives.”

“Then you should confront him about it,” said Daen.

“I don’t think so. That man is the leader of PIKE, he holds sway over the minor lords, not to mention he’s my son’s most trusted confidant. Even as a king, I must approach this carefully.”

Daen had hoped to see some of that fire he admired in King Reginald as a youth. This was all for naught if the king did not take matters into his own hands. “Please, my lord,” he beseeched. “At least ask him about it. You owe it to your soldiers—”

A messenger, ushered into the room, interrupted him. “M’lord.”

He presented a parchment which was promptly read.

King Reginald muttered to himself then blew out some air noisily. “It seems,” he said, shouldering past the messenger toward the exit, “Rives has requested, more like demanded, an impromptu meeting.”

“Your Majesty,” called Master Hedun after him. “You mustn’t go unattended.”

“Come along, if you can keep up. It’s time I shake a merchant upside down and see if some coins fall out.”

That’s the king I remember. Daen followed along, apprehension causing his steps to feel unsteady. Things were about to go very well or very badly, very shortly.

 

 

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 Tendrils with Spine

 

Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and YA Book Central.

Enjoy a new chapter every Sunday available right here.

Learn more about the people, magic and places of Draza along with a detailed map and history at TheBlackTrilogy.com. Questions and comments are welcome, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

YABC Staff's Current Reads ~ January 8th, 2018
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