Chapter 1-4 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
The Black Trilogy
Tendrils of Darkness
Raven clawed at the bare, unyielding ground. His fingers would more likely crack than the earth beneath them. Somehow he pushed himself up. Weak, dazed, it didn’t matter, he would continue until he collapsed—or until they caught up with him.
A glance back revealed he was safe for now. The flat terrain was both a blessing and a curse. In his state, hills and swamps would have been unmanageable; as it was, he could barely keep stumbling forward. But there was no place to hide, and his enemy could track him by sight alone.
The taste of blood had faded, forcing him to chew on his tongue until the metallic flavor returned. It was the only thing keeping him alert. The pain in his limbs had gone numb days ago. His face, gouged like carved clay, no longer hurt, though it would never return to normal, whatever normal was. A disfigured reflection was all he remembered of himself.
He closed his eyes and trudged on, trying to imagine how his life had been before. Before now. He could remember little of the prior week and almost nothing of anything earlier. It seemed his mind could only block out the unsavory if it erased everything else along with it.
But he remembered one detail, something that stayed with him no matter what: He must die. The one behind the dark cloak. The one who had done this to him.
Raven drew his conviction not from vengeance but from necessity. He had big plans for the continent of Draza, plans that ended with the subversion of every intelligent creature—and only Raven could stop him. A trace of euphoria passed through him at the thought of delivering the final blow, ending his life forever.
He awoke prone on the hardened soil; exhaustion must have overcome him. As he dragged himself upright, he heard a subtle hiss from behind. A glance back revealed five shadows flitting in and out of view. Blinking back his sleep, he saw the details come into frightening focus. Stalkers. Waist-high, blanket-shaped bodies the color of a starless sky; razor-sharp claws longing to rend flesh.
He ran, imagining the stalkers giving chase, eviscerating him from behind. But the terror that filled his heart soon gave way to resolve. These creatures need to be dealt with. Destroyed. Just like every other servant he has—one at a time, if necessary.
He spun about, drawing two thin swords.
The first of the stalkers leapt from several body lengths away, skin stretched, claws extended. He pierced it through with both blades, then spread them, tearing the creature apart.
A stalker latched onto his face; another dug teeth into his shin. He fell to his knees, pinning the shin-biter to the ground. He threw a sword like a javelin at an advancing shadow, then peeled away the claws at his face as they tore his cheek and sliced his wrist, stopping only when struck with steel.
A glimpse of moonlit darkness hit him full force in the chest, knocking him onto his back. He dropped his remaining weapon and grabbed the interloper. Blood ran down his neck where its claws dug in. He compressed his hands, crushing the creature until it was nothing more than a ball, a shriveled piece of junk no longer of value to him.
He wheezed. There were holes in his neck where there shouldn’t be. And then a rippling pain as the last of the stalkers climbed up his leg and across his ribs, stripping flesh as it went. He rolled, elbows bludgeoning the creature away from him. Along with his feet and knees, they were the only weapons he had left other than his tired hands and useless fingers with short, dull nails.
Night had descended, making the stalker nearly invisible. Raven caught a shimmer of it and bolted away into the nearby fields. There, the odds would be even. That was a lie he told himself; the odds were never even when he was involved.
Crashing through thick stems of growth, he stayed low, stumbling, falling. He rolled to a halt. He could hide here if it would leave him alone. Thoughts of killing every last stalker evaporated. Revenge would have to wait for another day, after a long rest and a full recovery, when there was no more wheezing when he breathed or stabbing pain when he moved.
A hiss pervaded the night. It was coming for him. Memories came too, of a stiletto he kept hidden in his boot. Numb fingers wrapped around its hilt as the stalker pounced on his chest. He stabbed and cut, but not enough to finish the job. A claw drilled into his body, scooping for his heart.
He squeezed his eyes shut against the pain. When he reopened them, he was no longer outside.
“Nightmares again?” asked the one in the dark cloak. There was no empathy in the tone.
Raven lay on the stone floor of the stronghold, clutching his chest. It was still intact, his heart beating vigorously.
“I am awake.” He managed to keep his voice from trembling.
“Good, then you are ready for your next set of lessons.”
The inflection on lessons was mild, without a hint of the horrors to come. Raven reached for his swords, but they were missing.
“Shall we begin with humility?” The question issued from deep within the hood, a hollow sound borne from infinite darkness. “You must learn humility above all else. That and obedience. The same lessons I plan to teach the Realms upon my return.”
Raven gave a shallow nod, wishing desperately to be anywhere but where he was. Even in a field having his heart ripped from his body.
Hand of the Council
Zeph Greymoon waited in the shadows of the tannery, tapping the circular birthmark on his thumb. The moon was so garishly bright, he practically had to squint. Add that to the constant stream of patrons from the nearby tavern, and he had the distinct feeling he was never going to finish the job.
He removed the blood slip from a pouch on his belt, a red-dyed parchment scrawled with information on his target—this time, only a location, a room inside the Rested Eyes Inn. Another Alliance member might have had reservations about the mission. Not Zeph. As a follower of Dela, goddess of destiny, he knew the part he played was nothing more than that of an accomplice. The goddess had spun the life thread of each individual long ago. Death was preordained and the success of an assassination attempt already determined.
The hardest part for him had always been the waiting. If his target was meant to die, weren’t these precautions a tedious delay of the inevitable? He knew that line of thinking was too simplistic. Death was such a slippery thing; not even Dela could pin down how its victims would succumb. Zeph had been a spectator to its cruel sense of humor more than once. An impossible victory followed by a graceless fall was all too common. Why, this past summer he had witnessed a man collapse midstride clutching at an invisible chest wound, dead within a matter of moments.
At least it had saved Zeph the trouble of slitting his throat.
And so he stayed put in the tannery, thankful that at least this mission would be over more quickly than the last. He had spent the past two weeks following a wealthy aristocrat, the Duke of Something-or-Other, with orders to document his agenda and report every inane detail. Over time, Zeph’s accounts had become decidedly less helpful: Duke speaks with ugly bald guy. Bored assassin lurks indefinitely. Zeph’s taskmaster got the message and the kill order was issued.
Two soldiers turned the corner.
“If we’re lucky, he won’t be here,” said one.
“Yep,” agreed the other. “Another tavern, another drink.”
They passed right by. In his midnight-black pants, boots, and cross-patterned leather jerkin, he was nearly invisible. Then again, based on the stench of spirits they gave off, he could have worn the dashing purple ensemble he reserved for dinner parties and they wouldn’t have noticed him.
An outpouring of noise burst from the confines of the inn only to be silenced as the door shut behind them like a cork plugging up the shouts of a jinni in its bottle.
The time was right—or it wasn’t. He tired of the waiting game.
Zeph crept over to the inn beneath the room he’d been watching, gripped the cobbled wall, and started his climb. Before long he’d hoisted himself up to a set of closed wooden shutters.
A roar erupted from below as the door to the inn opened. He froze. You never knew what small, unforeseen event would trigger an avalanche of trouble. It was one of the locals. He waited for the man to stagger down the street before he tugged the shutters open. A second set of shutters inside the window frame gave a further layer of protection against the chill of the night. Pushing them inward, he slid inside the room and closed both sets behind him.
The glow of the moon permeated the slats, allowing the contents of the room to become more than dim outlines. The steel of a knife on the desk caught his eye. Next to the blade lay a crossbow, loaded and ready. Zeph cracked a smile. What, does the guy take target practice from his window?
His gaze settled on a large armoire, the perfect perch for leaping down upon a person entering the room. He hoisted himself up. Back against the peeling paint of the wall, he twirled his favorite dagger in the palm of his hand: Venytier, named after an old flame whose eyes were the same color as the steel’s muted green.
He got up on his knees at the sound of approaching footsteps.
The door swung open to reveal a tall, broad-shouldered man with a tangle of wavy blond hair that fell just below the start of his leaf-green cape. He entered the room facing away from Zeph.
Zeph seized the opportunity, diving from the armoire and stabbing his dagger downward. His target spun around as if he had been expecting the attack. A buckler strapped to the man’s wrist swung outward, pounding Venytier on the flat of the blade. A hand axe materialized, streaking toward Zeph. He tucked his chin, letting momentum carry him into his foe. A moment slower and he would have been sliced through. As it was, the axe clipped him on the back as they fell to the ground.
He was contemplating his options even as he gathered himself. A gorget and pauldrons protected his adversary’s neck, shoulders, and upper arms, and he felt chain mail beneath the man’s garments. The axe the man wielded had a better reach than Venytier. The only other weapons Zeph carried were throwing daggers, but no experienced warrior would allow those to be unleashed at this range. His best strategy would be to get in close, where one well-aimed stroke could be fatal.
He sprang at his opponent as soon as his feet were beneath him, targeting the kill zones: the neck, the eyes, the bowels, and the temple. Each deadly strike was met in equal measure by the warrior’s buckler.
Zeph used the walls and furniture of the room as cover, making it difficult for the warrior to deliver an unhindered swing with his axe. He ducked and dove as they danced around the room, two clashing shadows in the moon’s seeping light. He was winded and had been grazed by several axe strokes, the most recent a gash to his arm. The wake of a powerful swing rustled the hair on top of his head—too near for comfort.
Clearly his more heavily armored foe was winning the war of attrition, and they both knew it. Perhaps this man’s death was not in the threads. Zeph’s mindset switched to one of escape.
The warrior’s axe snapped forward. Zeph deflected the blow, stumbling to the ground. A foot slammed into his head. He rose, wishing he hadn’t as steel approached at eye level. A leap backward left him pressed against the desk, his adversary closing in. Zeph aimed low with Venytier, leaving an opening for an overhead attack. It arrived in a hurry. He dropped and tumbled. The axe embedded itself into the desk’s thick writing surface with a thunk.
Zeph made for the exit. His fingers grasped the door handle, freedom a hairpin turn away.
He jerked the door open. A glance into the darkness behind him caused his heart to clench as if Dela herself held it: a silhouette of the warrior holding the crossbow aimed directly at him.
He slammed the door shut, using the momentum to send himself tumbling the opposite direction. The bolt soared high. Venytier hit the ground before the rest of him and clattered away.
Then his opponent was on top of him, this time with a knife.
Zeph half crawled, half slithered toward his lost weapon. The weight of the warrior pulled him back. A blade cut his shoulder. Thick blond hair obscured his vision, but a twist and a turn had him wriggling free like sand through open fingers. Venytier was not far.
He pushed up on one knee, intending to dive, when two meaty arms wrapped him up and slammed him to the ground. This sweat-drenched warrior was no ordinary victim to be dispatched with a slice across the throat. He was determined, prepared—he’d been expecting Zeph from the start.
What was the Council thinking, sending me here?
Rough, ragged breath sounded in his ear. The vice-like hold loosened, replaced by a forearm pinning him down. A knife rose above him; no room to dodge.
He grabbed a throwing dagger from its place on his breeches and jabbed outward. He heard a grunt. The forearm let up. In that moment of respite, he squirmed free.
Venytier. His hand clasped its beloved hilt in time to parry a dagger stroke, then another.
The two combatants rose in unison, facing each other as they had at the start. But Zeph could see that the warrior was not as accomplished with this weapon as he was with the axe. The man’s best chance had been to finish Zeph earlier. Now the tables had been turned.
Venytier’s curved blade tore through chain rings. A kick to the knee sent his opponent reeling. It was just a matter of time now.
His target angled toward the window.
Could he be trying to escape? Jumping out would break a leg. Climbing down would get him skewered. He might be positioning himself to call for help. Best not to let him get there.
Feigning a jab, Zeph sidestepped with the window at his back. The warrior responded by grabbing a rope attached to the shutter and yanking it toward him. The shutter connected with the base of Zeph’s skull, sending him sprawling. He twisted in the air, shoulder blades striking the floor.
Moonlight spilled into the room.
Before Zeph could bring Venytier to bear, the cold steel of a knife dug into his neck.
Daen managed his establishment according to two rules.
First, manners mattered. He treated all patrons as if they were guests instead of the deadbeat rabble they generally were. If his courtesy was not returned in kind, the guest would find himself bouncing off the dirt road outside.
Second, he gave no preferential treatment. Drink orders were taken in order of arrival. Loudness got you nowhere. You checked out of your room when you said you would, and you had better hope nothing was damaged.
By Daen’s own admission, he was an exceptional proprietor except for one thing: he didn’t belong here. He had been trained as a Nalescian sentinel, a member of the elite group that had once served at the side of the high king. There would be no end to the disappointment if his parents learned how he was now plying his skills.
So why manage a tiny establishment in a balled-up little town that owed allegiance to no kingdom? It was a question Daen put to himself every day. Hiding. Searching. Waiting. Whatever the answer, he tried not to dwell on it lest it bring on demons he was not ready to confront.
In the end, those demons came for him anyway.
The man arrived late one night, with a look about him you didn’t see often in these parts. He sat at the bar acting drunk and out of control, but Daen could tell he was neither. His smell, or the lack thereof, was the initial giveaway. His eyes were another. They had not glazed over from inebriation. When the man finally went for his shiv, Daen cut him down more quickly than topping off a stout.
He hoped the attempt on his life was a fluke, some slighted customer who’d found an amateur for hire to salve his injured pride. But he knew his days in Vean were numbered when the soldiers from Nalesc came for him.
He slipped upstairs as soon as he overheard them questioning the inn’s sole employee. It wasn’t until he entered the room that he discovered there was an assassin waiting for him. This one was better than the last, and it was only by feigning escape was he able to gain the upper hand.
Daen pressed his blade to the assassin’s throat. “Tell me who sent you.” The light of the moon played across the assassin’s features. “Zeph, is that you?”
“Daen.” The assassin grinned despite his predicament. “There’s more hair to you than face. Though that’s probably a good thing.”
Daen edged his knife back. Swiping his blond locks from his face, he replied with a formality honed over years interacting with Nalescian bureaucrats. “You should be watchful of your insults. I am still determining if I shall interrogate you or fix you with a bear hug.”
“I’ve always been fond of bear hugs, myself.” Zeph dropped his dagger and spread his arms.
“You certainly sound like Zeph.” And his friend’s appearance had changed little in the last four years: a jovial, clean face with curious green eyes and a nest of brown hair. “Now that I think about it, you wield a weapon like him as well.”
“Probably the only guy you know that could best you in a fair fight. Would have done so, too, if you hadn’t rigged the shutters to be an assassin’s death trap.”
This really was his good friend. Daen put his knife away and allowed Zeph to rise. “First of all, I have no remembrance of you besting me in a fight. Secondly, that was no assassin’s death trap, just a rope used to swing the shutters open when I need fresh air. Now let me ask you again: Who sent you?”
“You always were a stickler for details. How about we make this an information exchange? You explain how you were ready for me, and I’ll tell you about my assignment.”
“Agreed.” Daen stroked his chin and began to pace. “The room, cooler than it should have been. Likely an intruder had let the night air in. The armoire, conveniently placed next to the door. In fact, an all-too-perfect hiding place for any would-be assailant. My axe, concealed against my body. I never enter my room without it—not since my life was threatened a few weeks back. Your turn.”
Zeph assumed a stoic expression and stroked his own chin. Marching to and fro, he even lowered his voice in a horrible attempt at matching Daen’s. “The target, resident of The Rested Eyes Inn. The reason, don’t know, don’t care. The employer, the Council of the Alliance, defenders of the righteous and enemy of maligned forces.”
Daen chuckled at the performance. “Very clever, Zeph. It amazes me you have such trouble grasping what is plainly in front of your face.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“By now I thought you would have recognized the Council of the Alliance for what it has become: a group of ambitious, greedy, and corrupt men.”
“So that’s why you left?”
“What other reason would there have been?”
“I just assumed you abandoned us to tend to your wounded heart.”
Something inside Daen snapped. He reached for his knife.
“Easy now . . .” Zeph held up his hands. “Those were rookie times. We all loved Elise. She was a cute girl with a helluva spirit. But for whatever reason, Dela cut her thread shorter than most. Shorter than what seemed right. I figured you joined because of her, so with Elise gone, there was no sense in staying. I can’t blame you for that. Though a good-bye would have been nice. That’s all.”
Daen relented, but the anger would not subside. He hadn’t realized how his bitterness over Elise’s death had festered until now. If restraint hadn’t won out, he might have—only he hadn’t. He couldn’t. Not Zeph.
“The Council clearly still has the wool pulled over your eyes,” he said. “But enough of this. They are not of a mind to give up. I would appreciate that you not mention I survived—at least not right away.”
“No worries about that, my friend. When I tell them you were the one being targeted, I’m sure they’ll realize it was a mistake.”
His remaining hostility drained away. Zeph was still a naïve kid who didn’t know anything about anything. “So you do not believe me in league with malign forces?”
“Well if you were, you wouldn’t be stupid enough to let the Alliance find out about it.”
“No truer words have been spoken.” Daen wanted to smile but there was a pang he couldn’t ignore—a sense of regret. “You were right, before. I should have said good-bye.”
“The funny thing is, no one did.”
“How is that?”
“When the mission was over, we were asked to give our reports individually. I figured it was because of what happened, if you know what I mean. I was assigned to a new crew after that. Haven’t seen any of them since.”
“You have never been on another mission with Cahrin, Cope, or Sel?”
Zeph shook his head.
“Surely you ran into one of them during a training or at an Alliance-friendly establishment?”
“Not a glimpse.”
Daen scratched absently at his cheek. “That is odd.”
“If you ask me, the whole business was odd. You had undead crawling around like it was the second coming of the Necro Wars, and then—poof.” Zeph snapped his fingers. “They were gone.”
An awkward silence followed. Daen would have preferred not to have spoken of it to begin with. Four years he had been burying and reburying the memories of Elise’s death and the events leading up to it. He glanced at the floor. “I see you have a new blade since last we parted,” he said, hoping to restart the conversation on a lighter note.
Zeph picked the dagger up by the hilt with two fingers, turning it slowly to show it off. “It came into my possession by way of a duke.”
“That is quite a gift. For what honorable deed did you earn it?”
“I’m not sure if you’d call what I did honorable,” he answered with a sly smile.
Daen caught his meaning and stiffened. It was a fast reminder that his friend was more than the overgrown juvenile he remembered. “When do you return to your taskmaster?”
“Then I shall be on my way.” He pulled a backpack from under his bed and started stuffing it. Nalescian soldiers, hired assassins—if there really were gods, I would think they had it in for me.
“I’ve an idea,” said Zeph, grabbing his shoulder from behind. “Come with me. Together we’ll clear up this misunderstanding.”
“How do you know there is a misunderstanding? More likely the Council wants me dead rather than telling others the truth of their ways.”
“If you’re right, they’ll just send another assassin—albeit one with less skill than me. But some of them aren’t half bad.”
“Then I will have to dispatch the next one like the last two.”
Zeph stepped back. “Of course you can lay off all that dispatching with yours truly. As far as I’m concerned, the order was a mistake. I plan to take it up with Gunther, with or without you.”
“Gunther.” Daen paused thoughtfully. “I met the man once. He is a forthright sort.”
“And he’s going to love you. I mean, you two are so much alike. You’re tall, and he’s tall. You have blond hair, and he has blondish-brown hair—well, really more brown. Anyway, you both have hair.”
“I can tell already we will be the best of friends.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. You could only have one best friend and that’s me, right?”
“‘Best’ is such a strong word, Zeph. Can we not just say ‘past acquaintance’?”
Daen ignored a rap at the door. It was the sound of steel against wood—a soldier’s gauntlet or the hilt of a sword. “This meeting with your handler—will there be drinks involved?”
“As sure as my nose runs and my feet smell.” Zeph turned toward the door as a more insistent pounding erupted.
“Now that does sound a shade better than fleeing to the countryside.”
A voice called from the hallway. “We’re looking for the proprietor.” The Nalescian accent was undeniable.
“You gonna get that?” asked Zeph.
Daen casually picked up a slab of wood from behind the armoire and placed it across the door’s midsection just before it heaved inward “No sense keeping Gunther waiting.”
“Same way I came in?”
He followed Zeph down the cobbled side of the inn. A crash sounded from above as his feet touched the ground.
“Norweegee,” called Cahrin. Where had the xaffel gone to now? It was just like him to disappear when it came time to clean.
Master Ulfin had finished dinner and retired upstairs to his room. That meant no evening lesson for Cahrin, which was a welcome break. She had been training twelve hours a day since becoming the summoner adept’s apprentice nearly two years ago. Lately it had gotten even worse.
Cahrin cleared the dishes from the table and was wiping it down when she heard a snigger from the corner. There, a tall wooden cloak rack stood upright on three legs with a cloak draped over a crook and a fat pink behind stuck out on one side. She picked up a crust of bread from Master Ulfin’s plate and sighed.
“I guess since Norweegee has disappeared, I’ll have to throw out the leftover bread. And this piece looks so good, too, with the juices from the venison soaked in. It really is unfortunate.” She held the treasure up temptingly.
A furtive glance toward the cloak rack caught the creature’s pink bottom swaying anxiously. The temptation proved too much for the little guy. As the xaffel rushed to show himself, the cloak pulled taut, and the post rocked treacherously before settling back into position. Norweegee slid across the table to a stop in front of Cahrin, talons folded. His large, pale eyes pleading.
“Oh, all right.” She dangled the bread above the creature, who measured barely a hand’s height, only to snatch it away. “But first you must help me with the dishes.”
Norweegee took a giant leap to the sink, a distance of at least six feet, and got to work. Cahrin finished tidying up about the same time the last dish was scrubbed more or less clean.
Hopping back to the table, Norweegee stretched out a four-taloned hand to claim his reward. Not a moment after Cahrin placed the chunk of bread on the table, the xaffel stuffed it into his mouth, scattering crumbs everywhere.
“Pink-bellied slob,” she scolded, wiping down the table once more. A final scan of the kitchen told her it was good enough. Already her mind was imagining a soft pillow and a warm bed.
Her blissful thoughts were interrupted by the distinct grating of the stubborn window in Master Ulfin’s bedroom. How odd. That window was kept closed this time of year.
“Did you hear that?” she asked the xaffel.
Norweegee let out a contented groan before curling up on his side. He couldn’t communicate with Cahrin, only Master Ulfin, though Cahrin could hardly imagine what useful tidbits Norweegee would share. Invariably, it had something to do with food or sleep.
She heard a thud followed by a hollow echo from above them, probably her master about one of his late-night eccentricities. But the hair rising on her arms told her otherwise, and her instincts from a life spent mostly in the mountains of the north were rarely wrong.
“You’re coming with me,” she said, scooping the xaffel up. Despite his sharp talons, she didn’t expect Norweegee, with his soft, plump body, to be of much help if she ran into trouble. Still, there was strength in numbers, her father had always said. Oh Father, what would you think of me now?
She moved to the base of the stairwell, straining to listen. Nothing, like the silence proceeding a Dehiar raiding party. Then the xaffel went tragically limp.
“Norweegee?” she whispered as loud as she dared.
The creature slumped unresponsively, cradled in her palm like so many piles of wet parchment she’d taken out to dry. A final failed attempt to rouse him confirmed her fears: something had happened to Master Ulfin. As his familiar, Norweegee was a barometer for whatever the summoner adept was going through. A lifeless xaffel could only mean one thing.
She followed the creaks from the upstairs floorboards as they crept toward her. If something had befallen Master Ulfin, then who was in his bedroom? She put the pieces together like a tracker reading the signs of the terrain. There had been the sound of the window opening, the curious thud, Norweegee’s abrupt death, and now the creaking floorboards. It could only mean one thing.
Why does death follow me so? After years under Master Ulfin’s patient guidance, she could hardly fathom being left alone again. A fond memory flashed of her master’s nod of encouragement during a difficult training session. She would not let his death go unpunished.
She placed Norweegee on a cherrywood shelf and unsheathed her hunting knife. She hesitated. She was a summoner now; she need not rely on brute force.
Think. What creature should I unleash? A pallan? It would certainly deal with any predator, but it was a poor protector. An aototo? That could work. The house would be decimated, but so would my enemy.
She had never attempted a summoning without her master beside her. That safety net was gone and would never return. She let the rage build up within her and drew courage from its fire.
Her hand rose to eye level. Delicate fingers painted the air. Master Ulfin always said that summoning was best saved for the diligent, and anyone who had watched a summoner in action could see why. The sheer number of signs she had been required to learn was mind-boggling, and each was complex in its own right.
She concentrated on tracing the intricate symbols, knowing that the smallest error would leave her exhausted with nothing to show for it. The near-silent padding of feet down the stairs heightened her sense of urgency, but she did not hurry.
Finally the creature solidified before her. It was intimidating to behold, about as tall as she was and half her height again and at least thrice her thickness. Coarse, black fur shot outwards. Saliva dripped off needles for teeth. But it was the claws one needed to be wary of, curved like miniature cutlasses.
The creature turned. Cahrin could sense its intentions: to rend the skin from her bones. A cold front slithered down her spine; then she imagined Master Ulfin guiding her, his kindly face belying the force of will that emanated from him like an aura. “Careful, do not get ahead of yourself,” he would say when she became too anxious. “You must dominate it as if you are its creator.”
Cahrin bent her will around the aototo as she had been taught. She would command it, and when she was done with it, she would send it back to its own world. The creature fought against her. It could so easily bury its teeth into her soft neck—and it attempted just that.
No! Her spirit shouted, sending the aototo’s fur flattening against its body. She curled her will around its spirit and squeezed with every ounce of her strength. She could tell the aototo detested this strange new world and considered her a demanding little nothing. It wanted only to wipe her from existence. But its spirit was being crushed, and finally the creature relented.
She spun towards movement at the foot of the stairs. A black-clad figure was leaping at her with his knife extended.
Protect. The aototo burst from the shadows and barreled into the oncoming assassin.
She realized her mistake too late. Caught off guard, her assailant might have been torn apart. Instead, he tumbled halfway across the room before gathering his feet beneath him. Following its directive, the aototo stood formidably between them, roaring in challenge.
Cahrin had expected the assassin to be shaken, backtracking—looking for somewhere to hide. This was not the case. He barely gave the needle-mouthed creature a glance. Instead he fixed Cahrin with a hunter’s stare, whose message she had been taught as a girl: never let your eyes stray from the prey lest you lose them in the snow.
Grabbing a one-handed crossbow from his thigh, he loaded it and swung it toward her.
I was his target from the start. It pierced her thoughts as surely as any bolt. If the assassin had been after her master alone, he would have left the same way he’d come in. But he had come for her. And she would be no easy prey.
Destroy. Cahrin had never issued the command before. It was easier than it should have been, and the aototo had no qualms obeying.
The assassin held his ground. Rather than fleeing in fear, he aimed.
Cahrin dove for the cover of the stairs. She heard the bolt cut air before it thunked into a post a dagger’s width from her head. Part of her wanted to stay crouched behind the wooden bars watching as the aototo shredded the assassin, but she needed to find her master.
She raced up the steps and threw open the bedroom door, half expecting to find him as he always was, at his writing desk. He was not. His body lay still in a bloodstained bed.
She cursed the assassin, hoping he would endure a lengthy death. The sound of wood splintering came from downstairs, and she felt the aototo’s anger as its prey escaped. Follow and obliterate.
She was tired of death. It had forced her from her homeland in the frigid north, where clan fought clan. Now her kind master had become its latest casualty. She tried to ignore the fresh blood on her master’s nightshirt, focusing instead on his wrinkled face. If it weren’t pallid, drained of blood, he might have been sleeping.
She kissed him gently on the forehead and recited an ancient Northerner prayer: “May your spirit find new company while your deeds grow old in those you’ve left behind.” A rare tear fell onto his cheek.
The link between her and the aototo abruptly severed. Perhaps it had gone too far; a summoner’s range was limited. If that was the case, it could do almost anything for a short while before its anchor to this world dispersed. Almost anything. So what would the creature most likely do?
She heard something pounding up the stairs. It’s coming. No time to regain control. The next moment, the aototo was barreling through the doorway toward her, spewing saliva as it roared. It leapt, claws groping for purchase. Without thinking, she dissolved the remnants of the anchor that held it to this world as it continued its lunge, tearing at her shoulder and raking her midsection. But she felt no pain. Already ghostlike, the aototo faded before hitting the ground.
Cahrin took a deep breath, forcing a tremble from her body. She’d think twice before summoning an aototo again.
She gave a final look at her master, inwardly thanking him for everything he had done for her. Cahrin had been with the Alliance for five years when he approached her about an apprenticeship despite her obvious Northerner heritage. Even now, she dressed much as she had the day she met Master Ulfin: goatskin pants, a top dyed blue, a dark brown cloak and boots trimmed with fur, and a beaded choker adorning her pale neck.
Her people had been the first humans to escape the Old World and come to Draza. Landing on the frozen shorelines of the north, they took up residence in the Glasshorn Mountains, what her people called Ked’coon. Five clans had roamed the peaks for over three hundred years before they discovered the ghasiv, the Undeserving humans of southern and central Draza who spread their plague to every corner of rock and earth, stopping only at No Man’s Land, the desolate expanse that bordered Ked’coon.
Cahrin retrieved the small pouch of coins from Master Ulfin’s dresser that had been taken from her and stored here when she first began her training. With it was a folded parchment with her name written on it in her master’s flourishing script. Opening the note, she read his final words to her.
To My Most Stalwart Apprentice,
While my death may seem sudden, I have known this day would come for some time now. This letter serves as a farewell and a warning. I leave this existence with a swell of pride. Your magical talents manifested just as I had believed they would. I bid you many more years to master your craft. Keep safe all I’ve taught you.
As for your warning, I have uncovered a treachery that reaches the highest level of authority. Be it kings or queens, dukes or lords, I cannot yet say—except that my death is likely the result of how near I draw to the truth. Be wary. The tendrils of darkness are all around us. Only the careful and cunning will escape unscathed.
Sincerest of Farewells,
Master Ulfin Mather
No wonder he had been so anxious of late to teach her everything he knew. Unlike other schools of magic, it was knowledge that defined a summoner. The summoning signs to bring forth each creature from Otherworld were unique, and a true name was needed to assert control. These closely guarded secrets were handed down from master to apprentice. Many of the most powerful summoning spells Cahrin had read about had been lost due to the reluctance of an adept to share his knowledge.
She pocketed the note and strode to her room where she grabbed the satchel from her closet that was still packed with her old belongings, and shouldered her hunting bow and quiver.
Heading downstairs, she found half the wall of the house had been torn asunder by the aototo, revealing endless sky and a sand-strewn road. The assassin was nowhere in sight, but she spotted a piece of black cloth on the ground She pocketed her only evidence of the assassin and proceeded to the pantry.
She stuffed a bag full of provisions. The last time she and Master Ulfin went on an outing, he had repeated three times not to forget the dried pear. She smiled briefly, then frowned. There on the cherrywood shelf was Norweegee. His pink skin looked like a blanket sagging over everything but his protruding tummy and bald head, where the skin was pulled taut. He appeared dead, though she couldn’t know for sure. Even when he was bouncing from one area to another, his chest didn’t rise and fall; he came from Otherworld, where air was not a prerequisite for life.
She picked him up and placed him in her cloak pocket. A summoner could only have one familiar, and Norweegee had served her master loyally. The least she could do was give him a proper burial somewhere down the road.
She felt a touch of sadness that she couldn’t show Master Ulfin the same kindness, not if she wanted to follow the trail before it grew cold. But there was something else she could do to honor him. She pressed her hands together to her forehead and then spread them outward in an arc. It was her people’s way of swearing a grim oath of revenge, a promise to kill her master’s assassin no matter the cost. She remained absolutely still, letting the grim oath soak through her spirit and percolate to every region of her being. Then she left the house for good.
Outside, the air was brisk. They were well into spring, yet it felt like the last days of winter. It was too bad the snow was gone, she thought. Then it would have been easy to follow the assassin. As things were, the darkness and windswept terrain would be too much for her tracking skills.
Her other option was to call forth some help, which she was reluctant to do after the aototo. It is just a cuatal, she assured herself.
When the cuatal appeared, it allowed her will full dominion. It was a cute little thing, like some fluffy white ghasiv pet. Although it was only about as long as her arm, its nose made up a third of its length.
She pressed the torn piece of assassin’s garb to the cuatal’s nose. It wiggled its backside and started off in pursuit.
The next several hours were spent urging her master’s horse to a canter, only to ease up as the frenetic cuatal oscillated between speeding ahead and pausing to find the scent. It was frustrating, considering that the assassin was clearly following the road. Still, she had once been told the only difference between a fierce warrior and a rotting corpse is that the corpse was no longer making assumptions. For all she knew, the assassin could have circled back around to make a surprise attack. The cuatal’s remarkable sense of smell was all that kept her from looking over her shoulder.
As the hours rolled by, her energy ebbed. It was late, and the concentration needed to control the cuatal was taking its toll. Pulling off the road, she dismissed the furry creature and made camp. She did not risk a fire.
Cahrin laid Norweegee down next to her for the night. Heavy for his frame and flaccid like a wet rag, the pink-skinned familiar appeared destined never to move again. She touched his tummy where the pinkness of his skin was lightest. When he had eaten too much, which seemed all too often, she would try to make him feel better by stroking the length of his stomach with her fingertips. She did this now, back and forth across his rounded belly as her thoughts drifted off.
The light of the sun woke her from a discontented slumber. Her hand still rested on the unmoving xaffel. A feeling of loss lingered. Master Ulfin and Norweegee had been all she had known over the past two years. Before then, she had crisscrossed Draza on various Alliance missions, growing weary of the self-indulgence and prejudice that clung to nearly every ghasiv she came across. Master Ulfin had provided her with a needed refuge. But he was gone, and as with her homeland, she could not return.
She tucked Norweegee in her cloak pocket and gathered up her gear. She called upon a cuatal once again, but even without assistance, she could have guessed where they were going. The nearest town this direction was a haven for thugs, assassins, and mercenaries.
It was late afternoon when her suspicion was confirmed and the wooden walls of Yridark poked up above the horizon. Master Ulfin had told her it had been built generations ago as an outpost, when the ancient inhabitants of Draza banded together in an attempt to eradicate the ghasiv. She snorted. Evidently her people were not the only ones who felt the ghasiv undeserving of the lives they led.
She walked her horse the rest of the way to the gates. She had been taught it could be construed as arrogant to ride one’s horse up to a guarded entrance like some prince or lord. Not that she knew much else about horses. There were none in the mountains of the north, and it had taken her some time just to get accustomed to the long-legged beasts of burden. She still tensed when galloping.
Guarding the gates to Yridark, if you could call it guarding, were four men armed with swords, flagons of ale, and some gambling dice. Two dueled with their dice over a wager of coin. A third had apparently drawn his flagon once too often and leaned against the wall on the verge of collapsing. The remaining sentry leered at Cahrin as she approached. He was unshaven with a rancid smell about him.
“What you coming to Yridark for, missy?” His drawl indicated he’d enjoyed a flagon or three himself.
“I have business inside,” she replied.
“Hear that, boys? This ’ere lady has business in Yridark.” The guard chuckled, as did his dice-playing companions.
She was tempted to set an aototo loose on the lot of them. Deciding on a less satisfying approach, she picked a few coins from her purse and clanked them together. “For your trouble.”
The guard grabbed the wrist that held the coins. “It’s been some time since we had a lady at our gates with such . . . character.” Eager eyes accompanied a bawdy smirk.
She leaned in close, pouting her lips to draw the guard’s attention while she pressed her knife into his gut. “I suggest you take the coins and let me through.”
To the guard’s obvious relief, his cohorts seemed too busy cursing and watching each other for cheating to notice his predicament. “Open ’er up, boys,” he ordered.
Between dirty glares, they pulled apart the thick wooden gates. Returning to their seats was nearly as entertaining, one stumbling backward in his refusal to lose sight of the other.
Cahrin opened her hand, letting the offered coins fall to the ground.
“Now if I were looking for an assassin, where would I go?” she asked.
The guard’s eyes followed the coins as they bounced, speaking once they had settled. “The Crooked Nose is what you’re lookin’ for, missy. Jus’ through them gates and follow your nose.” He tapped his own nose and chuckled.
She sheathed her dagger and proceeded toward the gate. If these were the guards, she couldn’t wait to meet the real lowlifes.
“When you’re done,” the guard shouted after her, “come back and see me. I’ll be here all night.” He then fell to his knees, groping for the dropped coins as if they were buried treasure.
The Crooked Nose was a cross between a tavern and a hideout for scoundrels, a place catering to the most undeserving of the Undeserving. Cahrin saw no bar, just a row of barrels in the middle of the room drained on a self-serve basis. Loud boasts filled the air, mixed with hushed discussions.
She stood a few steps inside the door watching as a man in tan breeches and a food-stained tunic pocketed some coins from a nearby table. “Is that all?” he asked. “Your work must be getting sloppy.”
“The Council is scooping up all the choice jobs,” the other retorted. “It’s either this, or as they say, ten percent of nothin’ is nothin’.”
“Ten percent of what you earn won’t cover the cost of your tab,” said the proprietor. He caught sight of Cahrin watching and replaced his scowl with a lecherous look up and down her form that would have been criminal in any decent establishment. “How can I be of service?”
She dipped into her pouch and produced a handful of silver crowns to show she had the means. “I am looking for an assassin.”
The proprietor stepped closer. “What type of job do you have? Perhaps you’ve tired of your husband? Or is there an amorous rival you want to make disappear, if you catch my drift?” He winked broadly.
She fought the urge to gouge the man’s eyes out. “The job entails the death of a skilled magic user.”
He nodded with understanding. “Nol specializes in those magic types. Does the job need to look like an accident?”
She gripped the pommel of her hunting knife so tightly that her knuckles went white. “It was no accident.”
“The job to kill Master Ulfin Mather. Was Nol hired?”
The proprietor held up his hands. “I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
Her blade flew to the man’s throat. She knew she was being reckless, but on her grim oath, she would make the one responsible pay for what he did. “Where’s Nol?”
By this time, even with the overall rowdiness of the tavern, some patrons had begun noticing their exchange. She could hear the murmurs. She pressed the knife against the proprietor’s neck like she pressed her will against a summoned spirit. He did not speak, but his eyes gave him away. She followed his line of sight to a man sitting in a corner, his head cast downward.
“Are you Nol?”
He looked up from his drink, the lighting in the room spread across his features. It was him, all right.
Then she noticed the diminutive figure seated next to him, draped in an oversized charcoal cloak with the cowl pulled down past his crown. What is he doing here? Her blood boiled at the sight. It had been many years since she had crossed his dark path—in the distant north, in another life.
She never would’ve guessed she would find the only two people she had ever sworn a grim oath against sharing a table in Yridark. Now all she had to decide was who to kill first.
She shoved the proprietor aside and advanced on her enemies.
A moment later, she felt a sharp point at her back and heard a rough voice dripping into her ear. “Drop the knife, Northerner wench.”
Den of the Wretched
The place was seedy, even by Zeph’s standards. Teeming with the dregs of society, it was the type of place where they wouldn’t attract suspicion. Not that one would be careless discussing transgressions—you never knew who might be listening—but at least he wasn’t lulled by a false sense of security.
When he arrived, Gunther was already waiting at a table, his flagon half empty. He greeted Zeph with an enthusiastic “Good to see you, my boy,” picking his hefty body out of a chair to pat him on the shoulder. As a frequent dinner guest at Gunther’s home and an honorary uncle of his three boys, Zeph was family.
“Gunther, my well-fed friend, how have things been?” asked Zeph, taking a seat.
The taskmaster’s cover was an Adairian merchant. He looked the part in a rich purple doublet studded with black stone buttons that threatened to burst against his swelling midsection.
“They say the success of a merchant can be seen in his belly.” He patted the aforementioned area.
“Then I declare you are the most successful merchant this side of the Laiyn River.”
“I wish that were true, my boy, I wish that were true.” Gunther’s smile faded, and Zeph couldn’t help but note that the worry lines perpetually creasing his forehead looked deeper than usual. “Not so long ago, independent merchants could earn a respectable living, but the merchant consortiums may be the end of us. They’re faceless creatures with no souls. And to make matters worse, the largest of them, PIKE, appears to be in bed with the Western Kingdoms.”
“If he hurries, maybe King Reginald could still trade PIKE back for the bedbugs,” Zeph said.
He heard Daen stifle a laugh at the next table. They had determined earlier that he and Daen would arrive separately. Zeph had lobbied for clearing up the supposed misunderstanding at the outset, but Daen’s more careful approach had won out.
“If only that were so.” Gunther absently drew a pattern on the table using spilled mead. “It’s a dangerous time to be a merchant, Zeph. Dangerous. An unprecedented number of bandit raids have put many of my good friends in the ground, the lucky ones out of business. Do you know what would happen if one of my caravans were taken?”
“Outside of my status dropping to that of a pauper, absolutely nothing. But if a PIKE caravan gets waylaid, they scream bloody murder. Since King Reginald is Protector of the West, he simply reimburses PIKE for their trouble. Reimburses them for all their goods.”
Gunther finished so loudly that patrons at nearby tables looked over to see what the commotion was about. The taskmaster continued in his normal tone. “But enough of this. My Fara would scold me for such outbursts. Says they’re not good for my health, if you can believe it. So, my boy, tell me about your last assignment. Did it go well?”
“Are tadpoles wet behind the ears?” asked Zeph rhetorically.
“I’m not even sure they have ears. More importantly, is the target dead?”
Zeph squirmed in his seat. He was supposed to leave the surprise until later. But how could he lie to Gunther? “Go ask him yourself.” He gave a slight indication with his head in Daen’s direction.
“You brought him here?” Gunther’s face reddened. “What were you thinking?”
Zeph’s own ire jumped a notch. “I was thinking there was some mistake. You should be thanking me. Do you realize the person living at that address was once a member of the Alliance? Not to mention a good friend of mine. I could guarantee you he is no enemy of the Council.”
“It is not your place to catch mistakes—or to make guarantees, for that matter. Your mission was to assassinate the target, and you failed.”
“Well it’s too late now. As far as Daen goes, you can report that Dela cut his thread longer than this.”
Gunther took a deep breath and exhaled, then a shallower breath, before his color returned to normal. “It’s not that simple. Not everyone thinks like you, that the ending is already written and the middle is merely fun and games. Most of us believe there are consequences to our actions, sometimes dire.”
“And who’s to say my thinking isn’t right?”
Gunther stared back placidly. They had had this conversation before with similar results. All Zeph knew was if he could plan each day according to how it would affect his future or take life as it came, he would choose the latter every time. “Can’t we just move on to the next mission?”
“There is no next mission,” said Gunther, pulling fingers through his hair. “Look, my boy, I like you—always have. Up until now, you have followed orders without question. And your track record, it’s been impressive. So I can’t, just can’t understand . . .”
Zeph waited silently. He’d never seen Gunther so agitated.
After several quick swigs of ale, he continued in a hushed tone. “Let me show you something.” Gunther pulled out a piece of red parchment, hiding it from prying eyes behind his flagon. On it was the name Zeph Greymoon. “You see this blood slip? I’m giving it to another Alliance member later today. I’m truly sorry about this, but if I don’t hand out this order, I myself will be a target. Besides, they would simply find someone else to deliver it. And if they knew you were aware of the order, they might send more than one assassin.”
“That can’t be right. I’m a loyal Alliance member—and well liked. Last I met with the Council, they offered me Levarian wine. Do you know how expensive that stuff is?” Admittedly, the wine had been brought out quickly after Zeph accidentally broke a supposedly rare figurine in the waiting chamber. “It’s probably just another mistake. Maybe you should talk—”
Gunther waved the comments away. “You think I haven’t tried? Something is going on with the Council. I don’t know what. You and your friend need to disappear.” He pulled out a second piece of red parchment. This one was blank. “I was supposed to write the location in Tennar of your next mark and give it to you. You would have found your maker waiting for you. In case someone is watching—and trust me, they are always watching—I’m giving you this blood slip.”
He rolled up the parchment and handed it across the table. Zeph stared at it. Why would the Council want me dead?
“Look, my boy, I understand your strong belief in Dela causes you to have little concern for danger. But I am asking you as a dear friend, get as far away from here as possible—and please try not to attract any unwanted attention.”
“C’mon, Gunther, you know how I feel about lying low.”
“Yes, I do. Why do you think you were taken off the high-profile jobs? The Council was disappointed in your handling of the Haven ambassador incident.”
“What did you expect me to do, twiddle my thumbs in a room for weeks on end? Patience is not a Greymoon virtue.”
“No it isn’t.”
The two stared at each other. For several moments, the only sounds were curses and boasts from the tables around them. Then Gunther let out an exasperated sigh. “For my sake, Zeph, do as I ask. You know how anxious I get over politics. Imagine what it would do to me if you were found dead? I’d likely keel over then and there.”
“But on the bright side, Fara would be free to marry someone who could teach the boys to fish.”
Gunther turned stone-faced. “I don’t find that funny, Zeph. Not one bit.”
“Fine. I’ll disappear.”
“And most importantly, don’t go anywhere near Tennar.”
He was about to protest—his best tailor was in Tennar—but thought better of it. Meeting Gunther’s eyes with his own, he asked in his most serious voice, “Did I ever tell you that you were fat?”
The taskmaster broke into a broad smile. “All the time, my boy. All the time.”
“Let’s just say that as your girth has grown, so has your heart.”
“I’ll remember that one. May even repeat it, if it means an extra helping at supper.” He rose, and Zeph started to join him but Gunther signaled him back. “You stay. Have a drink or two on my tab. It will be a long road ahead.”
Gunther had barely moved out of earshot when Daen said quietly, “You see now that I am right about the Council.”
“I admit it’s at least something we should be investigating, especially the wine. I’m beginning to think they offer Levarian wine to all their visitors. Kynar probably wears a hip flask full of it.”
“Yes, the wine is exactly what we should be investigating.”
“Just saying if they’re spending that much on wine, they have to be corrupt.”
A commotion erupted at the front of the tavern, involving the proprietor and a woman.
“You’re kidding me,” exclaimed Zeph.
The focus of attention was unmistakably Cahrin of Ilthane, looking just as stunning and dangerous as ever: white-blond hair cropped short like a boy’s, accenting soft, flawless features. Yet it was her eyes that begged for attention, large and burning cobalt blue against the thick black marking that outlined them. Holding a knife to her back was a man who could best be described as a regular of the establishment.
“Do something,” urged Daen.
“Me? I don’t even like her.”
The harsh gaze Zeph received reminded him of Daen’s demeanor back at the inn before they had recognized each other. When his friend had been bent on killing him.
Zeph rose noisily from his seat. He knew he would regret what he was about to do.
“Marak!” he shouted to the man who threatened Cahrin.
“Little busy here, Zeph. Maybe we could talk later.”
“Actually, now is a better time. I kind of know that woman.”
Cahrin gave Zeph a defiant look, as if daring him to save her.
“She yours?” asked Marak.
Zeph flushed. “Of course not. She’s a Northerner.”
“Then I’ll kill her.”
“Go ahead. It’s your head. And while it might not be so pretty right now, it’s going to look a whole lot worse removed from your body.”
Marak scowled. “Speak your mind.”
“The witch deserves to die. I myself have wanted to do the deed, but for your own safety, my friend, it’s just not worth it.”
For the first time, Marak seemed concerned. “And why is that?”
“Her father is the chieftain of one of the Northerner clans. If he finds out his only child was murdered—well, I wouldn’t be surprised if he sends out a raiding party after you.”
“I ain’t scared of no Northerners.” Marak spat.
“Glad to hear it. Most men would cringe at the prospect of being hunted down by a pack of angry savages. The way they can separate a wolf from its coat faster than a man can draw a sword. Or how they’ve been known to make an enemy weep tears of blood. You ever seen the hands of a Northerner?” He spread his fingers and tensed them as if gripping something. “Just large enough to fit over one’s skull. I can’t tell you how much this sacrifice of yours means to me. To finally be rid of her—”
“It’s not like she killed anyone,” Marak backtracked. “I ought to just give her over to the watch.”
“But you said you weren’t afraid. You can’t change your mind now.”
From the table nearby, Daen coughed overtly. Likely he thought Zeph was overplaying his hand, but in Zeph’s experience, you had to commit fully when attempting to deceive. Sometimes he was so convincing, he had himself believing what he was pedaling.
A rough-looking patron tied Cahrin’s hands behind her back, allowing Marak to sheathe his blade.
Zeph sat down but continued to watch the proceedings. Secretly he had hoped for some furtive acknowledgment of his efforts. None came. The only expression he caught before Cahrin turned away was one of resentment. Typical. She was angry at him for saving her life. So be it. She could rot in a cell for all he cared.
He glanced over at Daen, sitting there all smug as if he had planned everything. No, that wasn’t it—what he was currently planning. He probably thought Zeph would help him rescue Cahrin. Ha! As if he would stick his neck out for her again.
He was about to say as much, to set his friend straight before he became overly committed, when Cahrin leapt toward Marak with her hands still bound, knocking him to the floor. By the time they pulled her off, she had the lobe of his ear in her mouth, which she spit into the face of the nearest ruffian. The arrival of the city watch was the only thing that kept her from being harmed, and her thank-you was a savage kick to the shin of the first to lay his hands on her.
Zeph shook his head in disbelief. No way was he saving her.
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.