Chapter 50 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
Years of sentinel training had taught Daen that there was only one replacement for careful planning and patience—dumb luck. They would need plenty of it to get through today.
No sooner had they left the sea of encampments behind than a single rider came into view. It was too dark for him to make out the features of the rider, but the king obviously knew him well enough to recognize him by little more than his silhouette.
“Rives,” called His Majesty. “Is that you?”
Rives came a little closer before turning off course, kicking his horse to a sprint. The king urged them to pursue. Burdened with armor and weapons, Rives certainly could have lost them if he chose, but he remained just in sight the whole way.
The passed the Old Road, and Rives brought his horse around to face them. Daen’s heart spiked at the sight of bulstan among the trees—at least fifteen or twenty—their white bodies invisible unless you were looking for them.
King Reginald called for a halt in the middle of the crossroads, an apt location considering whatever transpired during the next several minutes would define the direction of the war. “Rives, what’s gotten into you?” His face had reddened from exertion, and a layer of sweat covered his cheeks and forehead.
Rives tilted his head back leisurely. “So good of you to join me.”
The lack of deference was not lost on the king. “Have you grown too powerful to respect your liege?”
“I have only one true liege, and I’m afraid it’s not a waddling fool with a crown on his head.”
“I’ll have you arrested for such words. But first, you brought me out here. I want some answers.”
Rives flashed a disparaging grin. “Ask me what you wish to know, Your Highness.”
“Were you responsible for the ambush of your own caravan?”
“Not me personally. But I am the one who set the plan in motion. If only they’d done a better job.” His eyes darted to Biltrin for a brief moment.
“And you had Nastadra blamed?”
“But why? I see no benefit to PIKE for war to break out.”
“Clearly, no. But try to expand that feeble mind of yours as you have the rest of your body, and the answer may come.”
King Reginald straightened in the saddle.
“If I may, sire.” Daen crossed his horse in front of the king’s to prevent him from doing anything foolish. “It is because he serves Azren. The rumors are true. Even as we speak, the Afflicted One gathers his armies. With the two powers of the south at war, his work will be that much easier.”
Rives clapped his hands together. “Ahhh, someone who understands the nature of war and politics.”
“I will not allow it.” The king’s jaw was set, and Daen got a glimpse of the warrior beneath.
“You have not the power to stop me. Reveal yourselves, my bulstan!”
The white-skinned creatures materialized from the trees to surround them.
“When I tell your son how you’ve been murdered by warriors of Nastadra,” continued Rives, “he will do anything for vengeance, even ally the Western Kingdoms with Azren.”
“You would not.” The king was shaking in anger.
“For the sake of my people, I would do most anything.” Rives dropped his human disguise for a moment to reveal the form of a slick-haired dogar with a predatory smile, before becoming Rives once again. “And now you shall die, old man. Bulstan, attack!”
King Reginald’s guards closed around him protectively. The white warriors seemed every bit as dangerous here as they had at the farmhouse, and yet Daen abandoned the king like he knew he must.
Urging his horse past the bulstan, he charged Rives, swinging his hand axe back end first. It hammered Rives in the chest, unseating him. Before the dogar could clamber to his feet, Daen had the sharp end of the axe at his throat.
“Capture the king, my bulstan. Leave no one else alive!” Rives glared defiantly, but his expression soured as the advance of the bulstan behind Daen fell apart, the creatures crumbling as if they were made of sand. He lay in disbelief as two of the king’s guards marched over their remains and grabbed him roughly, one on each side, yanking him to his feet.
Daen relieved him of his weapons. But the merchant master was far from broken. “I see why she liked you. Well-built and yet not your typical warrior dolt. It’s too bad she had to die.”
“Of whom do you speak?” Daen asked, though he knew the answer.
Rives transformed. The guards now held the lithe white arms of a girl with flowing red locks and brilliant green eyes.
“Save me,” Elise exclaimed.
“Stop that!” Daen grabbed the false Elise and shook her. “You defile her image.”
But Rives would not abandon the act. “Daen, do not let them torture me.”
This charlatan may have looked and sounded like her, but the words were not her words. “You are not real. You are not her.”
“You could have saved me. You were too late.”
This had gone too far. Daen wrapped his hands around her delicate neck in both hands. “What do you know of her death?”
“I can’t breathe.” She coughed, and her eyes watered.
As much as he knew it was not her, he couldn’t continue. He let go. “Say what you will and answer for it.”
The figure transformed once more. The face wrinkled, the forehead widened, and the dress became a robe of navy blue with gold embroidery. Daen recognized Tupilid, leader of the Council of the Alliance when they had been assigned that fateful mission.
“Go forth to Ankara and find out more about these disappearances,” the figure said, “then report back to us.”
Daen had heard those exact words before. So had Elise and Zeph—all of them. Tupilid had been found dead in his chambers later that day. He must have been dead before then, before those words had ever been spoken.
“It was you,” Daen said. All this time, Zeph and the others had insisted there was no significance to what had happened, but now here was proof. “At Azren’s bidding you posed as the head of the Alliance. You sent us on that mission. What purpose did that serve?”
“I was simply following orders.” The dogar’s lip curled, and Daen wanted to wipe it clean as badly as he wanted answers.
“You know more. Tell me now, or you will wish you had.”
The guards cast him warning looks.
“I can only speculate.” The voice was still Tupilid’s, but the contemptuous tone was all Rives. “The mission could have been merely a distraction, or perhaps a preemptive strike on the gems—or maybe, just maybe, it was to kill a single girl. Imagine my delight if you had all followed the redhead into death.”
“That’s enough,” said the king.
Daen barely registered the king’s words. “I suspect you will speak more candidly on the rack.”
“Those high-pitched squeals of hers were worse than a wounded animal,” said Rives. “You’d think she would have had more pride than that.”
Daen sent a fist at Rives, but it never landed. The guards had released their captive and tackled him instead.
What were they thinking?
His face was slammed sideways into the dirt, but he could see Rives sprinting away and vaulting onto his horse. With a swift kick, he was off with guards giving chase.
Daen was allowed to rise but held tightly at King Reginald’s command, as if they thought he was the dangerous one.
He yanked at his captors. “Let me go after him!”
“You’ve done enough, son of Lywrin.” King Reginald placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “My men will take it from here.”
From the start, Raven had never planned to allow Rives to become a prisoner of the king. What would that have accomplished? More pawns moving about the board, no doubt. He had played his part and done exactly as he agreed—at least until the very end.
The sentinel had made it easy, brimming with rage. All it took was a nudge of illusion to give the guards the impression he was intent on killing Rives.
And thus, Rives’s escape had been secured.
Raven burst from the trees and urged his mount alongside Rives. A moment later, he hurtled himself from the saddle, colliding with Rives, sending them both to the ground. Before the servant of Azren could rise, he stood over him with a sword unsheathed.
Rives’s eyes widened. “M-Master, is that you?”
Cloaked as he was in the dark, Raven imagined he looked very much like Azren. “Soon you will learn what it’s like to have everything taken from you.”
“You’re not—” Rives sat up, no longer looking like a frightened kitten. “I know who you are.”
“You cannot presume to know what I keep secret from myself.”
Rives clawed at the dirt. “Gyste should have allowed me to kill you.”
Gyste. The mention of the name stung more than if Rives had flung the dirt into his eyes. Perhaps Rives would tell him what Gyste would not. “What do you know of my past?”
“Only that you were once Azren’s loyal dog.”
He studied Rives’s face for clues of deception. “Your lies will not save you.”
“You don’t remember.” Rives gave a snide laugh. “I would have thought the atrocities you committed would burn themselves into your memory.”
“I remember being held captive, tortured until I wasn’t sure if the cries I heard were my own.” He yanked back his cowl. “Tell me, is this the face of a loyal dog?”
Rives shuddered, but Raven could tell it was not for him. “The master has ways of making people do what they might not otherwise.”
Raven was no servant of the Afflicted One, of that he was certain. And yet… “How did I escape his domain?”
Rives attempted to stand, but Raven allowed him only to his knees.
“Escape? You came and went as you pleased, until one day you went and never came back.”
He didn’t remember any of it. Truth or lie, what did it matter? There was only the future to look toward.
“I will return, this time as his executioner.” There was a surge deep within his bowels, a longing that was more powerful than any emotion. “Every day must end and every servant of his shall find their life snuffed out with the light.”
Rives gave a light chuckle. “You do not frighten me. I am much too valuable alive, to your king, to Azren. Long after your body is buried, I will be here.”
Raven pressed his sword to Rives’s midsection. “You are wrong about that. Wrong about a lot of things—about the bulstan coming to your aid, about your current usefulness to anyone.”
“The bulstan—” he started, then the weight of it hit him like a charging steed. His face wilted in despair. “It was a ruse all along, wasn’t it?” Raven stared impassively, letting the truth writhe inside his enemy. “The parchment the Dersimeysous gave me—genuine, I would say…” Rives closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Of course he lied to me about the meeting—and the bulstan. They never existed. You did that.”
No, you did. Illusions are best served to the willing. He heard the sound of hooves from around the bend. “We have run out of time.”
Rives’s eyes flicked to the sword held at his chest. “Do not kill me. I know things about Azren. Things that can help the humans in the coming war.”
“I care not for the war kings make.”
“Then think about yourself. I can make you wealthier than any lord.”
All the coin in the kingdom would do nothing for me. No, it was these little victories that gave him the fortitude to endure. “Wealth and power are mirages. There is only life and death.”
The pounded of hooves neared.
“There must be something you want. If not wealth, then power. Your own kingdom, perhaps. Ask and you shall have it.”
Raven bent down inches from Rives’s face. “Grovel for your master.”
Rives stared back unblinking. He must have remembered repeating those same words on the Thulon Road. “Forgive me. I—I want to live.” He interlocked his fingers and shook his hands piously. “I will say—do—anything. Anything.”
“Then you truly are his servant.” Raven let his sword slide forward to a gut-wrenching scream. “Louder, so Azren can hear you from the Blighted Lands.” He twisted the sword to more strident cries.
The horsemen were almost upon them, flying fast.
Rives’s face paled on the brink of death’s door. Still, he managed to speak. “Humility and obedience.”
Those words—lessons I live over in my nightmares.
The dogar’s breaths were ragged. His body convulsed. “You…will serve him…once more…”
Raven wiped his sword clean of blood. Another pillar destroyed.
While it was only the beginning, every conquest started somewhere—a skirmish, a surprise attack, a battlefront—until finally there would be a siege the likes that had never been witnessed before. Many would die—thousands, if not tens of thousands, the hardened and the innocent. Entire armies sacrificed for a slight advantage on the chessboard. It would take all of this and more for a single opportunity to destroy Azren.
And Raven would be the one to take it.
Conclusion of Book 1 ==> (link valid on 1/21/18)
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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