Chapter 6 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
Man in the Charcoal Cloak
Zeph couldn’t believe he’d let Daen talk him into this. “You’re leaning too far forward,” he whispered, brushing Daen back into the shadows with his arm.
“I am trained in detecting those who are hidden, not the other way around.”
“There’s not a lot to it. Just stick to the shadows.”
“I understand the concept. It is the finer details that elude me.”
“There are no finer details.” Zeph moved a protruding elbow back where it belonged. All that posture Daen had picked up as a chamberlain’s son did him no favors now. “Really, Daen, a one-eyed guard with vision problems could spot you.”
“I am doing my best.”
Zeph sighed. He was letting his feelings for the mission affect his mood. “You know Cahrin’s never said a kind word to me. Not once. So why should I save her skin?”
“Because she has risked her life for yours more times than I can remember. Anyway, verbal sparring is how you two get on.” Daen continued with a poorly concealed grin. “Not to mention it is entertaining for the rest of us.”
“If you can’t keep to the shadows, trust me—this will get entertaining.” Zeph took a long look at the guards to see if they had been made. Satisfied, he continued in a hushed tone. “Wait here and let me do my thing.”
Zeph took two sidesteps before turning back to his companion. “Why exactly are you here, again?”
“To make sure you rescue Cahrin instead of kill her.”
“Oh yeah. That’s right.” Zeph wagged his finger at Daen. “But if after all this she insults me, it’s going to take more than one hapless sentinel to keep me from her.”
Zeph began silently moving away when he was grabbed by the shoulder and yanked back into hiding. He turned with an annoyed look. This was exactly the type of thing that made working alone so preferable. Daen was staring in the direction of the two guards sagging against the jail wall in laughter.
Drunk guards, so what? Zeph shrugged.
Daen nodded his head higher and Zeph followed his gaze to a black-clad assassin on the roof.
The assassin threw something at the first guard, causing him to crumple. Then he swung down from the roof and immobilized the second guard before an alarm could be sounded. He had just finished propping up the bodies of the dead guards, when he abruptly spun about and scanned the street.
Zeph flattened himself while pressing Daen against the wall with his forearm. Either the shadows had saved them, or they were being lulled into a false sense of security.
The assassin disappeared inside the jail, leaving Zeph and Daen sprinting to follow. At the entrance, Daen held up a staying hand while he picked his crossbow off his shoulder.
Zeph didn’t pause. Drawing Venytier, he burst through the door and somersaulted inside.
It took a moment for his eyes adjust to the darkness. The room was small and square. A guard rested eternally on a bloodstained cot. Inside the only cell was Cahrin, hands and ankles bound, standing defiantly as the man in black entered her containment area.
Even in this light Zeph recognized Nol, an assassin with a high opinion of himself and a low sense of decorum, always bragging about the way he killed his victims. Nol pulled Cahrin’s forehead back—her white-blonde hair too short to grab—and put a knife to her throat.
“Ze-eph,” he called in an annoying, high-pitched voice. “It looks like you’re a little late.”
“I don’t see it that way,” said Zeph.
Nol shifted his gaze to Daen, who entered the room with his crossbow set against his shoulder. “How do you figure?” he asked, holding his hostage before him.
Zeph twirled his dagger nonchalantly as he advanced. “If we had arrived much later or earlier, we might have missed you.”
“I don’t think you understand the situation. I have the wench. And if you don’t clear a path out of my way, I’ll kill her.”
“You really are dense. It’s like I said back in the tavern: I rather hope someone will finish her. Even better if I get to watch.”
He was pretty sure it was his sincerity that sold it. The cockiness drained out of Nol like the blood of one of his victims. “You mean—”
“Yep, I have orders to dispose of you.” Zeph showed him the top portion of the crimson slip Gunther had given him, not enough for Nol to see it was blank. “And my friend”—he jerked a finger at his crossbow-toting companion—“is here to help out.”
Nol backed into the cell. It was narrow and deep.
“Then let’s make this interesting.” He heard Nol’s voice echo but could not see him anymore. “Blind-Man’s Alley. First blood leaves here alive.”
“Zeph . . .” Daen cautioned, but Zeph was already advancing toward the darkened cell. He’d oblige most requests for a fair fight, especially when it decided something of importance. Though Nol was unlikely to fight fairly, and Zeph was still contemplating if saving Cahrin was all that important.
He entered the cell, unable to see its end. Two steps in, he spied Cahrin on her side up against the back wall. Which meant Nol could only be—
He looked up just in time to catch Nol descending dagger first. Their weapons collided and spun to the ground. Zeph fell under the weight, a jumble of limbs vying for position. Nol ended up on top. Bare hands were at war, Nol’s at the throat, Zeph’s gouging eyes. It was a race of who would be the first to give in, give up, give out.
“It’s over,” said Nol at last, releasing his grasp. He wiped Zeph’s shoulder to show it was bloodied. His dagger must have connected before Venytier turned it away.
“So it is,” acknowledged Zeph.
“Almost,” said Cahrin.
She stood behind Nol and dropped the ropes binding her hands around his neck, then pulled him back with her against the wall, her teeth clenched. Nol clawed and thrashed. His whole body shook. Then he stopped.
It was a full fifty heartbeats before Cahrin loosened her grip, letting Nol’s body fall face-first to ground. Daen came over and cut her bonds, and she rewarded him with a flawless smile. “Thanks. I wasn’t sure you two were coming.”
“We have been through too much to forget past debts,” he said.
His eyes were that same sallow yellow she remembered, the piercing gaze reminding her of an owl. “I see the lines on your face have only deepened.” She traced a fingernail down Daen’s chiseled features as if she were drawing a summoning sign.
Daen turned away from the touch. “I have not slept well in days. As you may remember, Zeph’s snoring keeps even the cockroaches awake.”
“Says the man who can hear the cockroaches awake,” said Zeph.
Cahrin could tell something darker was bothering Daen. The last time she’d seen him, he’d been sneaking out of their room before the break of dawn. That was when she should have asked him to stay, despite everything that had happened, and return with them to the Council. Once he left, it would be too late. But she’d done nothing but lie there and watch him leave. “Now you too are a runaway,” she had said quietly to herself just before he had disappeared.
Zeph approached spinning a bloodstained arm around like a windmill.
“I see your injury caused no permanent damage.” She did her utmost to sound disappointed.
He gave her a broad wink. “They’d have to do a lot worse to keep a Greymoon down.”
“I’ll remember that for next time.”
Zeph didn’t take the bait. “It’s been a while. You look, um, good.”
She raised an eyebrow quizzically. She wasn’t accustomed to getting compliments from Zeph. This wasn’t how it supposed to work.
“I don’t mean good-good,” he backtracked. “I mean good-like-you-haven’t-been-horribly-maimed-since-I-last-saw-you good.”
That was more like it. “Why, thank you, Zeph. I would say the same, but you always can tell when I’m lying.”
He turned to Daen. “I try to give her a compliment and she insults me—and that’s after we rescued her.”
“I am not sure if I would call that a compliment,” said Daen.
Cahrin rolled her eyes. “I’m not sure I’d call it a rescue.”
“Then what exactly would you call it?” asked Zeph.
“Hmm . . .” She cocked her head. “A failed rescue attempt ending with me taking matters into my own hands?”
“If that’s the way you see it.”
“As would anyone in their right mind.”
“Who was completely blind.” By Zeph’s expression, even he could tell he had been outdueled.
Daen slapped his hands together in businesslike fashion. “Now that we have that settled, I suggest we leave Yridark with all haste. Unless the two of you would prefer to spend the night in a cell with each other.”
Cahrin decided she much preferred the former.
They retrieved their horses on the way to the main gate. It was only a matter of time before someone noticed their escape, but Cahrin rather hoped that wouldn’t happen until after they’d left Yridark. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
A bell rang, followed by exclamations and shouted orders. A handful of lightly armored guards came rushing down the street on foot, blocking the avenue. They would either have to go through them or escape another direction.
Zeph spurred his horse to gallop. “I got this.”
“Zeph!” she called.
Daen grinned. “Feels like old times.”
She fixed him with a dangerous look until he made amends.
“How about we see if we can even those odds?” He pulled out his crossbow.
“You think?” she muttered under her breath as she loosed an owl-feathered arrow from her short bow.
Ahead of them, she saw Zeph reach for his throwing daggers and stitch a path of blades along the waist of one guard and up the torso of another. She focused her efforts on the largest of the brutes. Daen must have had the same idea, adding a crossbow bolt to finish the job.
By the time Zeph met the enemy, only one was left standing. He hopped off his mount to trade slashes and cuts until his opponent fell prey to a twisting gouge.
Zeph looked back at her with a grin of victory.
Idiot. And she said just that as her horse thundered by.
It was when they reached the city gates that she realized the main flaw in their escape plan: they had assumed that the gates would be held by four mostly drunken guards. The number was thrice that, and half the guards were aiming crossbows at them.
They reined in their mounts. Their options were limited, none good. She ruled out retreating back into the city; there was nowhere to go and no one to hide them. The residents of Yridark would turn them in for a copper rung. And while the city gates stood open, daring them to make a foolhardy attempt at escape, it was dangerous at best and more than likely tantamount to committing suicide.
“We could take them,” said Zeph, looking like he was all set to charge the gates.
And this, she remembered, was why she found Zeph so infuriating. He held an extreme optimism in his own abilities—or at least what he termed the length of his life thread—that was not shared by others. In her homeland, such recklessness went hand in hand with death. She despised those who put the clan at risk due to bravado or sheer stupidity.
“Perhaps one or two of us might escape with our lives,” said Daen diplomatically, “but it is unlikely that any of us would come away unscathed.”
“We’ll fare no better in surrender,” Zeph said.
“Whatever we decide, we are at the point of no return.”
It was true—much closer and they would be within crossbow range. With more guards sure to be on their way, they would be forced to pick their poison soon enough.
And then something caught her eye. Off to the side but clearly among the defenders was a diminutive figure with a charcoal cloak. She wondered how she could have missed him before. Now what is my mortal enemy doing here, this far south?
“It’s him.” Her voice was filled with pure loathing.
“He was with Nol in the tavern,” said Daen. There was little the sentinel missed.
“He is the reason I was forced from my homeland. My grim oath must be settled.”
The others were looking at her as if she was crazed. They didn’t understand what his death would mean to her, to her people—maybe to all of Draza.
“I will deal with the crossbowmen,” she said.
“And how’s that?” inquired Zeph.
“I am a summoner now. An apprentice summoner, in any case.”
Zeph stared back dumbfounded, something she would have delighted in given other circumstances.
She made symbols in the air. A rustle of wind sprang up as if in answer to her calling. Even as she concentrated on each delicate symbol, a part of her registered the advancing crossbowmen.
“Cahrin, we should move back,” said Daen anxiously.
She heard the words distantly, as if she was underwater. She sensed the mounts of Daen and Zeph huddling up to her, protectively.
As she drew the last symbol, a shimmering outline solidified. The bandheid was not large, about the size of a small shield, with two short wings that met with a bulge in the center. Maroon fur covered its entire body. She had purposely chosen a creature with little mind of its own. It was easy to control and had no animosity toward her. She dominated its will with hers and sent it streaking through the air toward her enemies.
The next bandheid appeared soon after. She had only summoned multiples of the same creature once before, in her master’s presence, but there wasn’t much to it. She simply left the doorway open a little longer than usual.
By the time the third was zipping through the air, she was feeling the effects of expending her magic. She had been taught that a summoner relied on her will, which she used to dominate the creatures she brought to this world, and her spirit, which was the living essence inside her. Though the spirit had been described to her as energy flowing through her body like blood, her people believed one’s spirit was a fiery ball below the heart. With each bandheid she summoned, she felt a thin layer of her spirit being stripped from her. Barely noticeable at first, it became painful as the summoning continued.
A fourth creature appeared, and she shuddered at the effect. Sweat beaded on her face as another joined its brethren. She hadn’t even used her will on the fifth bandheid when a sixth and a seventh popped into existence. Every time she tried to close the door of summoning, another burst through, keeping it ajar. Her spirit was being peeled to the core, and all she could do was scream in agony.
The pain was becoming unbearable. The eighth, ninth, and tenth bandheids arrived nearly on top of each other. It felt like nails tearing at her insides, and with each passing moment, they clawed deeper. She let out a wretched screech. The last of her will was stripped away, and the only defiance she could muster was a prolonged whimper that lasted until she could feel no more.
Daen found it incredible to watch. A furry red creature appeared out of thin air and went soaring at their enemy. It was followed by a second, and not long after by a third. They harried the crossbowmen with attacks. One clamped onto the neck of a swordsman, and another knocked the crossbow from a guard’s hands. Each materialized more quickly than the last. A fourth creature was just starting its beeline toward the enemy when a fifth appeared.
Cahrin’s expression contorted in pain—something wasn’t right. The next furry beast flew up into the air with no apparent agenda. More arrived, followed by a cry of anguish. And then the number of them almost doubled in a matter of seconds. Cahrin erupted with another agonizing scream that petered into soft, incoherent sounds as she fell off her horse.
Zeph scooped her from the ground and placed her in the saddle in front of him, then took the reins of her horse with his.
The maroon-furred creatures were everywhere, swooping between the guards, causing chaos. The opportunity for escape could not be any more evident. Daen kicked his mount to a gallop, leading the way toward the city gates.
Daen heard the accusation as clearly as if someone had whispered it into his ear. He turned, half expecting to see the culprit riding next to him. It was not the first time he had imagined the words of a stranger, but never with such vengeance, such fury.
While the voice was not specific, he knew it was referring to the man in gray. He scanned for the accused.
There he was, creeping away from the fray.
Daen could not risk it. He was determined to clear a path for Zeph and Cahrin, but there was a desperation to the mysterious voice that was hard to ignore. It slithered into his ears and gnawed at the back of his head, pleading with him to carry out its request as if it was the most important thing in the world.
Breaking through the rank of crossbowmen, he instinctively veered toward the man in gray, ignoring Zeph’s calls. His mind could not be changed. He was chosen. He was honor-bound.
One of the summoned creatures plunged down at him. He hugged his mount. A light chittering added to the tearing of the wind as it soared past his head.
This time the words came from both sides at once. He could hear the anger in the accusation and sensed the truth in its vehemence. But before he could reach the man in gray to make him pay for his crimes, he was surrounded by a blanket of pitch-black silence.
The shouts of guards, pounding of hooves, and whooshing of blades went mute. Around him was a darkness like Daen had never witnessed before. It was unnatural, an utter quiet mixed with an endless void. His spooked horse reared up. He grabbed the reins, dug in his heels. In a matter of moments, he reemerged from the ebon cocoon to the chaotic sounds of the skirmish.
He looked left then right, seeking, searching. Several guardsmen were down with bloated purple necks. The crossbowmen had either dropped their crossbows to take up melee weapons or were swinging them wildly through the air at their diving enemies. Amidst the blood and sweat, screams and chitters, the mysterious man in gray had vanished.
Daen rounded his horse and made for the gates. Zeph was already there, a handful of bodies strewn about him. The first guard to cross Daen’s path met with hoof and axe. Two more guards barred his escape. One keeled over with a pattern of throwing daggers in his back. The other took a hearty swing at Daen, who barely kept his saddle as he blocked the blow with his buckler and thundered through the city gates.
As they left Yridark behind, he could hear a dry, squeaky voice calling for pursuit. Daen imagined the man in the charcoal cloak gathering soldiers, preparing to hunt them all night and the next if need be.
And then Daen heard a single hiss he nearly mistook for the wind.
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.
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,