Chapter 5 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
The Council of the Alliance
As an Auburn monk in the Order of the One, Copius had been called a lot of things: fervent, dogmatic, a heretic, sometimes clumsy and naïve. But soon he expected to be named a hero.
At the behest of the Council of the Alliance, Copius had been protecting a caravan heading to Ildan when bandits attacked. Two merchant guards were slain in the initial strike and another three before the fight was over. Copius himself had been wounded. If it hadn’t been for the tenacity of the merchant foreman and his sons, none of them would have come out alive. But as it was, the bandits were beaten back and the caravan was saved.
The Honor Guards had arrived not long after, wrapped in plate armor up to their necks and riding horses draped in ornate caparisons covered in a multitude of three-sided stars, the markings of his employer, the Council of the Alliance. Copius was to be escorted to its headquarters in Korinth. The Heavies, as the Honor Guards were often called, were deployed only with much consideration. The Council must have found it imperative to get Copius to whatever congratulatory event they had planned.
Copius allowed himself to feel self-important at the summons, a luxury he rarely had as a monk in service of The One. It was similar to the pride that swelled within him when he thought of his grandfather, the most famous monk to ever don the robes.
The deference the Heavies showed him was flattering. During their travel, they insisted he take no part of the night watch. A guard always stayed near him to ensure his safety. And when Copius had the notion to strike up a conversation, the guards refused to respond. It was almost as if they felt speaking to the soon-to-be recognized Alliance member was paramount to sacrilege.
Finally the moment had arrived. Here he was, outside the Council Chamber at the center of Korinth, the birthplace of the Alliance. By design, the city resided in the Disputed Territory, virtually at the crossroads between the Four Realms: Nastadra to the south, the Western Kingdoms, Durfolk to the north, and Paquin to the east. Copius looked down at the reddish-brown robes marking him as an Auburn monk and realized he had forgotten to change. Food stains and dirt caked the traveling garment—atrocious for one of his order. Luckily, he had packed his formal robes. And while he was rummaging around in his backpack, he could grab something to eat. It had been an hour since his last snack, and his stomach was already rumbling. An apple would do him well, with perhaps some figs—and nuts, he couldn’t forget the nuts.
He rose and addressed the armed escort to his right. “Excuse me, good sir.” An answer did not appear forthcoming. The monk placed a hand on a steel-plated shoulder before continuing. “I just realized I made a grievous oversight.”
The Honor Guard looked down menacingly at the intruding hand. Encouraged by the attention, Copius continued. “My robes . . . They are not appropriate for the ceremony. I must change them at once.”
The doors to the Council Chamber swung open and a young page stepped through. “The Council will see you now.”
Copius gave the guard a last pleading look that went unanswered. His escorts took him by the elbows and brought him to the chamber within.
In more than five years of service to the Alliance, Copius had only once before been inside the Council Chamber. It was grand but not opulent, much like Oberr, the monastery where the revered Acolytes of The One resided.
The room was about a hundred feet long and half that in width. A floor-to-ceiling opening in the northwest corner gave a dazzling aerial view of Korinth. Copius imagined that the Western Kingdoms would be visible on a clear day. Facing him were eight grand chairs, wide and majestic, with backs that rose above Copius’s height. These were the Council member seats, though only half were filled today. Flanking the chairs were four Heavies in gleaming armor. The warriors escorting Copius released him in the middle of the room and bowed to the Council, as much as their armor would allow.
It took Copius a moment to realize he wasn’t the only guest in attendance. Nearly lost amidst the grandeur of the chamber was a man layered in black. Tucked into leather boots were black pants and above that a black tunic, and then black gloves, each so dark it was hard to tell where one began and the other ended. Enveloping the man was a sable-hooded cloak.
He reminded Copius of those in the Ebony Order, though this man was no monk. He came across more mysterious than dignified, aloof to the point of disrespect. Hidden under his cowl, his head was turned looking out toward the city. It was apparent that this dark-clad stranger did not want to be here. Maybe he was too humble to accept any acknowledgment.
Copius felt ashamed at feeling anticipation for the forthcoming accolades. The Book of Ilias taught modesty. Sadly, the monks of his faith often fell short in this respect.
The head of the Council of the Alliance, Kynar Berevel, stood up and commanded silence with the raise of a hand. He was not young and it showed on his face, where craggy lines etched their way across his cheeks and forehead. He wore flowing blue robes embroidered with gold three-sided stars.
“It was forty years ago that Azren the Afflicted came down from the Blighted Lands with his army of creatures and coalition of allies.” The voice of the Council Head was raspy but it filled the room, suffocating all other whispers. “The Great War ensued. The land was ravaged. Tens of thousands died.”
He stopped, allowing the echo of his voice to end before he continued. “Many say if our friends the sinestre and rogroms had not been drawn into the conflict, we would not be here today. In the aftermath of our victory, the Four Realms established the Alliance as well as this ruling body. Since that time, much has changed. We are now independent of the Four Realms, and this city is under Council rule. Yet our mandate remains: to stamp out any threat to the Realms before it can spread. Many of us have made our livelihood following that mandate. A few have been exceptional in their zeal.”
Copius beamed. Before today, he had risen up the ranks of the Order from Umber through Violet, Amber, Emerald, and others. There had been some slips along the way—more like tragic stumbles—but now this. The Acolytes would hear of the forthcoming accolades, and their faith in him would be restored. And then who knows? Maybe someday he too would become an Ebony like his grandfather.
“But there are times when we must single out those—Yori, where’s the third one?”
An Honor Guard flanking the Council stepped forward and turned to address Kynar. “I’m sorry, Council Head, he—he got away.”
Kynar fixed the offender with a crucifying stare. “Then what, pray tell, are you doing here?”
The scolded Honor Guard slapped his arms to his side and puffed out his chest. “Protecting the Council, sir.”
“You would protect us better if you brought here what was asked. Take that fool Paht with you and find the dogar!”
Kynar enunciated clearly as if he were speaking to a child. “I would prefer yesterday, but now will do. You two”—Kynar signaled to Copius’s escorts—“let me express my gratitude to both of you for accomplishing your assigned task. Truly, your competence is refreshing.” The last statement came out as a final stinging jab to Yori and Paht, who marched out of the chambers in shame.
A smile plastered itself on Kynar’s face. “Now, where were we? You there.” He motioned to Copius. “Tell the Council your name.”
“C-Copius Crux, sir.” He stuttered when he was nervous. And he was nervous when his words were the center of attention. His father had made a career out of speaking in front of crowds. Copius envied that gift of eloquence while acknowledging The One had laid out a different path for him—a path so obscured of late, he had trouble making out where he was going. But today . . . Today he walked on solid ground with his future clearly before him.
Kynar gave a thin-lipped smirk. “The Council recognizes Copius Crux and Raven . . .” He looked expectantly at the man in black, who appeared to take no notice.
Copius was flabbergasted by the total lack of respect. Is this how he treats the head of the Council? Maybe he didn’t deserve this honor.
Kynar took the insult in stride. “Raven of Tigren,” he decided, citing the coastal town known for its free-willed inhabitants.
Selgrin observed all this through the muddled vision of a rat. Three days ago, the Honor Guards had come for him, saying that the Council had requested an audience. This seemed unusual—make that downright odd. So when he reached Korinth, he gave his escorts the slip. Then to satisfy his curiosity, he changed into a rat and followed Yori and Paht into the Council Chamber. He’d thought about becoming a cat—it would have been much more appropriate—but now was not the time for games.
He huddled in the shadows of the west wall, taking it all in. Something wasn’t right. The escorts, the chamber, the mood—it gave him more a sense of a wake than a wedding. And that would have been enough to make him leave straightaway had he not recognized one of the guests.
It had been years, but Copius Crux still looked little more than a kid. A shaven head and rounded cheeks accented soft eyes framed by wire-rimmed glasses. He wore an innocent grin on his face. Poor Copius, probably thinks this is some sort of award ceremony.
Kynar continued. “All those who recognize these men, say aye.” The other Council members sounded off in turn. “As I was saying, some of the Council’s subjects are exceptional. But others are traitorous. They use their position for personal gain. And that is why we are gathered here today. Those recognized have acted in a matter considered treasonous by the Council and punishable by death. Raven of Tigren, Copius Crux, please hand back your Alliance medallions and submit yourselves to the Honor Guards.”
While Selgrin had figured as much, Copius’s face displayed utter and complete shock. “B-B-But . . .”
Kynar turned his lips up mockingly. It was a wicked smile if Selgrin had ever seen one. “Would you like to protest?”
“I, uh, yes!” Copius had paled considerably. “There m-must be some mistake. Didn’t you hear, I j-j-just saved the merchant caravan?”
“I hear many things, my dear monk. This would not be the first time the guilty professed their innocence. But you will have your say before the execution.”
With a signal, Kynar sent two guards toward Copius and two at Raven. The black-clad stranger turned his attention away from the window and threw back his cowl, revealing thick red scars crawling across his entire face and neck like worms over his pallid skin. High cheekbones accented eyes that were sunken and dark, giving Selgrin little doubt about the soul hidden behind them. In contrast to his ghastly visage was an exquisite mane of midnight hair that flowed past his butchered ears in strands and meticulously braided columns.
Most unnerving to Selgrin was the man’s passive, almost bored expression, as if this were some meaningless exercise. With a contemptuous lift of his chin, he ripped free the silver chain hanging from his neck and tossed it toward Kynar. What appeared to be the medallion of the Council transformed into a web of steel midflight. Kynar deflected the attack with his hands. It was a natural reaction and a foolish mistake. The steel twisted around his fingers, enveloping them in a cocoon. As a conjurer, Kynar’s greatest weapons were his hands. Now that they were immobile, he was helpless.
“Guards, take them!” he said. Swords were drawn. Aggression appeared forthcoming.
Selgrin surveyed the situation. He did not know what to make of this Raven, his cavalier attitude and tortured face. Obviously he was a metal elementalist of some skill. But could he fight?
As the guards moved in, the scarred stranger reached down and produced a pair of swords.
The guards raised their weapons and attacked in practiced unison. To Selgrin’s astonishment, Raven did not back down. His blades glided in and out, parrying the blows of each guard separately. What’s more, he hardly appeared to be exerting any effort.
While Kynar’s declaration had woken the man in black from his ambivalence, it seemed to have had the opposite effect on Copius, who stood rigid in stunned silence. The guards sent to apprehend him must have sensed he had no will to resist. They slid their weapons back in their scabbards and grabbed him.
What was a rat to do?
His choices were simple: fight with the accused against unfavorable odds or scamper away in the confusion.
Selgrin looked up. Even with his rat vision, he could tell how dazed his friend appeared.
Curling his lip back, he scurried over to Copius and delivered a vigorous bite to the ankle, hoping all the while he wasn’t passing along any rat diseases. The last thing he wanted was the young monk foaming at the mouth and meeting an untimely death on his account.
Maybe it was the clash of battle or the rough way the guards treated him—or maybe, as Selgrin believed, the shooting pain of a rat’s bite. Whatever it was, Copius came back to his senses. His jaw set, his eyes hardened, and his expression became dangerous.
Copius yanked free from his hold. An arm swung wildly, hitting the temple of the first Honor Guard and sending him to the ground. He clasped the neck of the other. The guard pulled his sword free and hacked at Copius’s arm, but instead of severing it, the sword stopped as if it had hit an opposing weapon.
Selgrin had seen Copius use various monk abilities before; he had called them kertaskais. He remembered this one was named Hergetra and made the skin as strong as steel
Selgrin had seen Copius use this ability before. He had called it Hergetra. Its effect was to make the skin as strong as steel. Apparently it was one of many kertaskais he mastered while climbing through the ranks of his Order, and all the divine proof Sel needed that Copius served a true god.
The guard attempted once more to slice Copius’s arm before letting go of his weapon to claw at the hand at his throat. His struggles weakened, and he dropped to his knees and went limp.
More guards poured into the chamber. Kynar was still grappling with the webbing around his hands. The other Council members, diplomats rather than warriors or magic users, stood by in anxious silence.
“Secure the door and incapacitate the accused,” ordered Kynar. “Kill them if you must.”
Two Heavies handled the first request while the others advanced on Raven and Copius.
Time to take a more active role in abetting his friend’s escape, decided Selgrin. He stood a few feet behind Copius and grew from a large, rather deformed rat to a full-sized humanoid, albeit one with a missing hand.
He blinked hard several times; transformations always temporarily blurred his vision. When it cleared, he wished he was still in his previous form.
Four of the five guards assigned to Copius had locked shields and were marching forward. The last had pulled out a crossbow and was loading a bolt.
“It’s the dogar,” shouted Kynar, pointing at Selgrin, who found himself staring down a crossbow at close range.
“Sel, is that you?” said Copius, turning his back to the oncoming guards.
The bolt released before Selgrin had any chance to dodge. Had Copius not stepped haphazardly into its path, he would have received a hole in the gut. As it was, the bolt ricocheted harmlessly off the monk.
“Do you know any other rats that can change shape?” he asked mildly.
“Well, if you—”
The monk turned just in time to meet the wall of Honor Guards, working in unison as if they were clashing against a legion of soldiers. Swords stroked down in precision. Shields were held high.
Copius took the brunt of the attacks with his body, sweeping his arms outward like weapons, brushing the enemy back, battering shields away. His momentum was short-lived. A blade left a mark on Copius’s chin. The next hit a shoulder, causing the monk to wince. His kertaskai was fading fast.
While Selgrin would have liked to join the fray, he wasn’t sure he’d be much help against a group of Heavies. Copius was only staying the inevitable, and despite Raven’s sword skills, he didn’t appear to be faring any better. He continued to frustrate his attackers, deflecting blow after blow as if their broadswords were little more than sticks, but Selgrin noted he had not subdued any of his opponents. When the reserves added their support, Raven was forced back against the wall. Still, even with four guards attacking him at once, he somehow parried the incoming blades without any sign of faltering.
Selgrin made for the floor-to-ceiling opening at the rear of the chamber. If there was any hope for escape, this was it. As he approached, he concentrated on the shape of a particular bird. Feathers replaced skin. His feet spread into talons. Each arm grew into wings the size of a man.
“To the window,” he called to Copius, just before his mouth turned into a beak.
A sword caught Copius on the elbow, leaving a bloody gash and inducing a retreat: at first backtracking, and then turning around to run. Some guards stopped to gape at Selgrin’s transformation—humans often did. Others broke rank and gave chase at whatever speed their plate armor allowed.
Copius sprinted, his head whipping back and forth between pursuers and Selgrin. He dove too soon, landed on his chest, and skidded the rest of the way. By the time he had picked himself up, brushed his robes down, and begun clambering onto Selgrin’s back, the guards had reached them and the crossbowman had reloaded and was taking aim.
Raven was more put out by this little adventure than he was letting on. Not that he was challenged by the swords of his foes. The Heavies were dull tools of the Council, their movements as slow as their wits.
It was the inconvenient timing that was most troubling. After years of ponderous service in the Alliance, signs of a lead had finally surfaced, one he was eager to investigate firsthand. To be sidetracked by pawns of pawns was infuriating. Precious time was being wasted, and as useless as these enemies were, in numbers they were not so easily cast aside. Already the effort of staving off four guards at once was taking its toll.
Until this point, Raven had relegated himself to defense. The Heavies were clad toe-to-shoulder in plate armor. An attack could cause his blade to become stuck against armor or bone, and that would be disastrous. Besides, any dead or injured guard would simply be replaced by a fresh one.
A voice called out, and Raven risked a break in concentration for a brief glance that direction. At the window stood a giant bird—and the monk was running toward it.
Raven calculated his options with a sardonic smile. These guards were all ignorant whelps with little more significance than the insects that roamed the Council Chamber. He would prove their tactics pointless. He mixed counterstrikes with his parries; his attacks became more frequent, more furious. If the guards weren’t such dullards, they might have realized he had no intention of scoring a hit. He made a feint to his left and followed it by diving at the guard to his utmost right, the final obstacle between him and escape.
The audacious move caught his opponents by surprise. Blades sliced through nothing but air as Raven slammed headlong into his intended target, sending the guard onto his back then bouncing to his feet.
A crossbowman had the bird in his sights as it took off from the opening. The monk was hanging on for dear life. More guards were rushing toward them.
Raven got there first. He planted his foot on the ledge and leapt for the great bird.
Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and YA Books Central. Enjoy a new chapter every Sunday available right here.