Epilogue Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
With No Man’s Land finally behind them, Pa’hu let out a long whoop of elation from deep within his gut. This was echoed by more than fifty thousand Northerners, a sound that pierced the crisp, cool air like one of their feathered arrows.
At his side were Cawa, his personal beliei, and Vergud, who was beating his chest as he wore the grin of ten men. Soon after saving Pa’hu’s life from the uoko, he had been made daroo, most trusted of warriors.
For the first time since leaving their home, the Northerners of the five clans appeared in good spirits. Pa’hu had to admit that even he had been disheartened of late. After wasted weeks recuperating from his injuries, he had marched his people from the majestic peaks of Ked’coon to traverse the endless expanse of lifeless dirt and rock that made up No Man’s Land.
He wondered how it had been for Cahrin, his eternal dirksa. It was hard to imagine her suffering the deserted land without friends or family, knowing she could not return. He would find her. First he would humble the ghasiv and possibly the armies of Azren as well, but after that he would be with Cahrin once more.
No sense getting ahead of himself. For now, Azren was his ally. All around them, his armies dotted the landscape in hundreds if not thousands of campsites. Pa’hu recognized the kobolds from his dealings with Kreeb. They were the most numerous by far. Then there were dark-faced warriors, tall and muscular with skin reminding him of the cliffs of Ked’coon and gruesome-looking men with skin the color of a fresh snowfall and colorless eyes lacking any spark of humanity.
Sensing the uneasiness of his men, Pa’hu let loose another cry. The army of Northerners responded in kind, and the brotherhood of it calmed their spirit. Asormo, the two-faced city, loomed ahead of them, broken and dirty, certainly not the impenetrable stronghold the stories described.
Pa’hu signaled all but Cawa and Vergud to wait. They strode resolutely up the dilapidated road and across the threshold of the city that had been the bane of their ancestors. Inside the crumbling walls, they passed kobolds showing their pointed teeth as they laughed and a contingent of bloated creatures with noses as big as their heads. Somewhere deeper inside, they could hear the rhythmic echo of an air-splitting crack punctuated by a scream. This disconcerting sound grew louder as they neared their destination.
Turning a corner, they came face to face with a towering mountain of blocks. Even Vergud paused to gawk, and he found very little impressive. The structure resembled a great creature of myth, its entrance a maw and two openings three-quarters of the way up for eyes. It was said here the leader of Asormo resided.
Pa’hu tore his attention away from the monstrosity, compelled to discover the origin of the screams. Strapped to a pole was a bare-backed soldier of the Undeserving, a ghasiv. Punishing him was one of the bald, chalky-skinned creatures, bigger than any Pa’hu had seen before, bigger than Vergud. He wielded his three-pronged whip without pity, to the delight of the jeering crowd.
Pa’hu clenched his fist in anger. This sport was not to his liking.
The whip-bearer paused, leaving the soldier trembling and out of breath, as a gray-cloaked figure Pa’hu recognized as Kreeb spoke to him in hushed tones. Whatever was said was not to the soldier’s liking. He turned away, and the whipping resumed. As did the screams.
Pa’hu felt the eyes of his beliei and daroo upon him. He knew what they were thinking. His thoughts ran the same course. These men of Azren were no better than the ghasiv. Maybe worse. It was the type of thing that made him want to denounce the alliance between them.
“Stay here,” commanded Pa’hu, and he pushed his way through the crowd.
Pa’hu carried the burden of being Schie Kalro, leader of the Northerner clans. The choices he made affected the lives of future generations. He understood that Azren was needed to defeat the ghasiv and allow his people a new beginning. As much as he revered the snow-crested mountains and welcomed the everyday trials of what he still considered his true home, he was aware his people could never flourish there. Death by starvation was not uncommon, and Ked’coon’s icy grip claimed many lives. The root of the bloodshed between the clans was not ill will—though plenty of that had festered over the years—but the scarcity of food and shelter.
Forging through the spectators, he was reminded of the words passed down from the elders to young Capkecka warriors: To choose between need and honor is like choosing between a brother and a sister.
Pa’hu stepped into the path of the advancing whip. The three prongs fell harmlessly against his fur vest, ending the monotonous crack and scream.
Kreeb stepped forward. “You’re getting in the way of our fun and games, Northerner.”
Only it wasn’t Kreeb. The voice was not right; neither was the tone. The white-skinned creature stopped and looked questioningly at the man in gray.
Pa’hu bristled. “What you do is no game.”
Anxious cries from the crowd threatened to turn violent when another voice chimed in from above. This time it was Kreeb.
“Pa’hu,” he called down amicably in his dry, squeaky voice. He stood at one of the openings high in the stone structure, his cowl pulled back to reveal his red snout. A comely ghasiv woman draped herself over his shoulder. “Why don’t you come up and we can discuss this, among other matters?”
Pa’hu hesitated, afraid this was just a ploy so the whipping could resume.
“Wait there,” Kreeb continued. “I will send a bulstan down to get you. Drax will not continue until we come to an agreement. Isn’t that right, Drax?”
The other figure in gray stamped his feet in protest. “Make it quick. I sense this one is beginning to break.”
Pa’hu waited for the arrival of another of the white-skinned creatures. “I will be back,” he said gravely to his companions.
Vergud tried to protest, but a shake of his head ended the discussion.
It was a tactical move to leave Cawa and Vergud behind. Pa’hu trusted that if something should happen to him, Vergud would have a reasonable chance of getting himself and Cawa out of the city alive. Doing so from inside the stone structure would be a different matter. He could think of no better place to trap a Northerner than between four walls.
Pa’hu followed the bulstan through the hallways, feeling as though at any moment the ceiling would collapse upon them. He knew it was foolish to believe such. They moved up a third set of steps to a closed door at the top. He followed the bulstan inside.
Kreeb bowed his head to the floor in a nonsensical formality that Pa’hu had yet to understand.
“Schie Kalro, leader of the five Northerner clans,” he said with respect. “Let me introduce you to Her Majesty Queen Pandare.”
The queen was pretty for a ghasiv. Her hair was the color of bear’s blood, and she was dressed in flowing robes with sleeves that could fit a dozen arms. Brightly hued stones adorned her fingers and neck, and a swath of glittering rocks blanketed her wrist.
Pa’hu nodded in greeting.
Queen Pandare responded with a vibrant smile that looked more predatory than welcoming. “It is a great pleasure.” She pursed her lips at the last word. “If I had known Northerners were so…robust, I would have welcomed your people to my domain long before.”
The way she spoke, extending some parts of her words, was foreign to Pa’hu.
“It’s very well you didn’t,” said Kreeb. “The Northerners call this city Asormo, the two-faced city. I can’t see how that has changed during the last four hundred years.”
“What a dreadful thing to say.” The queen looked displeased. “Is my darling Kreeb perhaps jealous of this strong, handsome Northerner?”
“The only feeling your shameless advances inspire is contempt.”
“Hmph.” She turned her nose up with an air of dignity, only to spoil it with what she said next. “You’ll regret those words, you—you little toe wart.” She flounced to the other end of the room.
Kreeb’s mouth parted in a toothy sigh. “And there is a perfect example of why the ghasiv, as your people call them, must be subjugated. One moment they’re your ally, and the next they’ve turned on you like a starving animal.”
Pa’hu stared placidly at the kobold.
“Now,” continued Kreeb, “shall we get to the matter at hand?”
“Let us start with the ghasiv you dishonor outside these walls.”
“I promise you, there is no dishonor in what we do. The human below is a captured enemy, our prisoner. The whipping is merely a method to encourage him to divulge what he knows of Camere’s defenses. Surely you see the wisdom of learning from our enemy.”
Pa’hu shook his head in disgust. He would never consider inflicting harm on an enemy outside of combat. “The clans do not keep prisoners. And if we did, we would not treat them in such a way.”
“Really, Pa’hu,” said Kreeb with a perplexed frown. “How do you expect us to burn Camere to the ground without knowing the most efficient deployment of our forces?”
“You talk of destruction as if it’s a spoil of war. My people raid for food, furs, and weapons. Sometimes to add new clansmen. We do not take from our enemy unless we need something to survive.”
Kreeb appeared startled by his animosity, but he did not back down. “You talk of raids, while I talk of war. In war, you take because you can and because your enemy needs what you have stolen. And during war, Pa’hu, prisoners will come to you by the thousands. Should you let them go and leave them shelter, they will lick their wounds, make new weapons, and march once more against you. Would you see your people die at the hands of an enemy, given a second chance?” When Pa’hu did not answer immediately, he continued. “I thought not. In war, prisoners should be used to gain every advantage.”
Pa’hu shook his head. “There can be no victory in a war won with disgrace.”
“I wish I could convince you the reason of what I preach. But if I cannot, then so be it. I will still do Azren’s bidding with our own prisoners.”
“Even if it insults your allies?” Pa’hu was finding it difficult to keep his rage inside.
“When I first met you, there were five separate clan leaders, isn’t that so?”
Pa’hu nodded grudgingly.
“Some clans were at war with each other, while others were allies to varying degrees.”
Pa’hu’s silence was his acquiescence.
“Now, did your Schie Bura ever take it upon himself to tell the other clan leaders what to do or how to do it?”
Pa’hu could see where this was going. “It is not for Schie Bura to decide the path of the other clans.”
“Think of us as two allied clans,” said Kreeb. “I will do with my prisoners as I like, and you will do with yours however you see fit. Set them free, if that is your wish, or bury them in the ground. I won’t stop you.”
Pa’hu seethed. He very much wanted to challenge Kreeb to battle and force him to set the ghasiv free. Yet he could not. He had a duty to his people he could not ignore. Azren might see this war as a quest for power, but it was different for the Northerners. To some, it was about revenge; for others, taking back what was rightfully theirs. But Pa’hu realized it had grown to be much more. It meant peace, finally, between the clans and a new, less treacherous life for his people.
And besides, he knew Kreeb was right. He could not tell his allies what to do any more than they could tell him. He let his anger drain into the cold stones underfoot.
“Do we understand each other?” asked Kreeb.
Pa’hu nodded gravely.
Kreeb went to the window and clapped his hands. By the time he turned back around, the whipping had recommenced.
Seeing Pa’hu’s sullen face, Kreeb attempted a conciliatory tone. “Do not worry yourself. Soon we shall go our separate ways and fight our separate battles. Your people will not have to be witness to our ignoble actions.”
He beckoned Pa’hu to the window. “Come. What we have here is monumental. Something that may not be seen again for a hundred years or more.” Then, raising his voice, “My dear, please join us.”
The queen barely fit between them, pressing her body to Pa’hu as they surveyed the scene.
“I want the two of you to look at what we’ve assembled here,” Kreeb said. “Before us is the bulk of Azren’s army. To the northwest are the bulstan, strong and unafraid, fierce fighters and loyal. You cannot ask for better soldiers—except perhaps for our Northerner allies. Camped alongside them is a sea of red, my own people. The kobolds are so vast in numbers it is said they could fill the Bay of Edingarn and still have enough left over to equal the size of Mount Siberooth.”
He allowed a moment for the scope of what he said to sink in.
“To the northeast is what I like to call our creature collection.” Notable among a mass of shadowy terrors, Kreeb pointed to a cage filled with enormous, gangly green creatures, reminding Pa’hu of the fabled ridge stalkers that pulled Northerners from mountain peaks. “They are the stuff that demons fear. Queen Pandare can attest to the havoc a single troll caused in this keep of hers. Can you imagine a legion of them? Now you don’t have to.”
“And finally, just beyond our doorstep are the five clans. There’s nothing more fearsome than a Northerner bent on revenge, or so I am told. If these men could last centuries atop the frigid mountains, they certainly can dispose of a few ghasiv.”
Queen Pandare stopped swaying against Pa’hu momentarily. “I have not heard this word before, ‘ghasiv’. What does it mean?”
“I am so glad you asked, my dear. Northerners use the term to describe the humans residing in central and southern Draza, those they consider undeserving of the bountiful land they plunder. I find the term very appropriate when describing a woman who has risen to power by marriage and murder.”
Queen Pandare made a slapping motion at the kobold’s snout. “Stop it—”
Kreeb grabbed her wrist and held it firm. “Or what, my dear?”
“Or I will not be so hospitable.”
“It’s too late for that,” said Kreeb, showing his pointy teeth as he smiled. “We already occupy the city. Your citizens have fled. We take what we want and destroy what we choose. What more use are you?”
Queen Pandare’s outrage descended into a mix of desperation and fear. “Oh, don’t tease me, my darling.” She ran her finger delicately around Kreeb’s jaw. “You know there are other worthwhile reasons for my being here.”
Kreeb caressed her shoulder before closing his hand around her throat. “Oh, I don’t think so.”
Leveraging his position, he shoved Queen Pandare out the window.
Pa’hu grabbed for the queen out of instinct. He caught her ankle; she dangled upside down below the window. Everything became still. Then the fall of the whip and a tortured scream from below broke the vacuum of sound.
“You Northerners really do have amazing reflexes,” said Kreeb. “Now let her go.”
“No!” the queen screamed. “Don’t release me. You cannot release me.”
“She will die if I let go,” said Pa’hu. It would be as if he had killed her.
“That is precisely the point. Why would you want to save this two-faced woman from a two-faced city?”
“Don’t listen to him!” called the queen. “Pull me up so I can gouge his eyes out with my nails.”
“That’s the vile tongue of a ghasiv you hear. One undeserving of the very life she breathes. Your people are allowed one small slice of frozen mountain, while the ghasiv keep the best of Draza for themselves. Your people scavenge and spill each other’s blood for the tiniest of meat. The ghasiv simply go to a nearby tavern and ask for food. Your people freeze to death in the bitter cold. The ghasiv warm themselves by the sun.”
“Please…” Queen Pandare gave a desperate cry.
Pa’hu did not glance at her.
Kreeb continued his onslaught. “She is but one ghasiv. When you are on the battlefield, your men will kill hundreds—thousands. Let this first one go. She means nothing. She is nothing. Nothing but another ghasiv trying to steal your land and take your food.”
“Traitor!” screamed the queen, grabbing a knife from her belt. She cocked it back to throw.
Pa’hu released her. Flailing backward, she heaved the blade at Kreeb, who hardly flinched as it sailed wide.
Pa’hu could not tear his eyes away from Queen Pandare, her body turning end over end as she screeched vulgar curses in that thick accent of hers. Everything was happening in slow motion, like the heat of battle, when every knife stroke was recognized in dramatic fashion.
The scene ended abruptly with a snap of her body and bones jarring against the ground.
The nearby crowd seemed to barely notice the annoyance, which fortunately did not disrupt the monotonous cracking of the whip and accompanying scream they had grown to adore.
Kreeb turned from the window with a satisfied groan, as if he were taking a stroll after a feast. He made some cursory comments to his bulstan, which Pa’hu half heard, something about cleaning up and disposing of the remains.
Pa’hu continued to stare down at Queen Pandare. She lay face up, cheeks bloodied, body twisted in an unnatural position. He had barely known her, and already he regretted his actions. Even an Undeserving deserved a better fate.
Another sound of the whip flaying skin. Another helpless cry. This was not how Pa’hu had envisioned the glory of his people’s war with the ghasiv.
He turned around to see Kreeb looking at him with a tactless smile. Pa’hu’s grip tightened around his hunting knife as he strode toward the gray-clad figure. Kreeb glanced at the door he had sent the bulstan through only moments ago. His smile turned to worry.
Pa’hu stopped in front of the kobold. One hand pulled the knife free of the scabbard; the other grabbed at Kreeb’s wrist. A downward slice set the blood flowing freely.
Another slice, this time at his own hand, and Pa’hu clasped it to Kreeb’s. They stood side by side, blood-soaked hands entwined, sealing their covenant.
“Allies,” said Pa’hu. It took enormous willpower to speak that word, to make the blood covenant, and more to keep himself from breaking Kreeb’s neck. He abhorred what was done, what was being done—using pain to elicit secrets, throwing a ghasiv queen out of a tower.
But Pa’hu had endured far worse for his people. Years of struggle, of cajoling, of badgering. Years of war. Lonely years. What were these fresh dishonors but scrapes from a thorn bush? He did all of this for his people, and he would do more.
It was like Kreeb himself had said to Pa’hu so long ago: true bravery comes by putting the needs of others—the needs of your clan—above all else. Even his dirksa believed this to be true. For her and every Northerner who ever breathed or came to pass, he would have this alliance.
The whip cracked like thunder, followed by a worn-out scream.
“Allies,” Kreeb returned weakly.
Leather on skin echoed dully in Pa’hu’s ears, eliciting a mournful whimper from its victim that petered out. A grumbling arose from the spectators as their fun ended.
That concludes book 1, Tendrils of Darkness
Stay tuned for the release of book 2, The Ebon Monk
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.