At Marcher Lord Press, Saturdays are “Speculative Story Saturdays.” Several Marcher Lord Press authors are playing fiction relay to write this story together. Here is the latest installment.
I shouldn’t have gone. I knew that from the start. My masters had always taught me to heed the Flow, to read it, to sink myself into it, and carry me where I needed to go. The Flow guided my hands in a fight. The Flow had kept me alive longer than most in our Guild. The Flow brought Cludge and me together, a fortuitous pairing. I owed my life and livelihood to it, so I knew all too well the dangers of disrupting it.
Barzillai Broadhead came very close to damming the Flow entirely.
I glared at the back of his head as we trudged through the Dank Wood. His quiver of arrows swayed hypnotically across his broad shoulders. When I first learned that Barzillai wished to hire me, I was eager to take the job. I had heard of Barzillai and his exploits. While I would never let on in front of a prospective employer, I was greatly excited to meet him, even more so when I saw how handsome he truly was. My mind couldn’t help but drift toward how we might celebrate once the job was done.
But that was before he told me we sought the Crystal. That was before he brought in the priest. That was before he revealed that cross he wears around his thick neck.
My hand twitched toward the blades I kept sheathed at the small of my back, just to make sure they were still there. I should just slaughter everyone in the party and disappear. No amount of gold made this worth it. Wolf-men, I could handle. Giant spiders, a trifle. Even the rumored golem was a challenge I could savor. But the priest and Barzillai’s faith . . . Poison to the Flow.
“You wouldn’t be thinking of doing something rash now, would you?” The thief’s voice hissed in my ear.
My hand jerked to my hidden sheath of daggers, only to find them gone. I whipped around, my lips peeling back in a snarl.
Raibert Wiley smirked at me, twirling the sheath in his hands. He then caught them, held them to his lips, and blew on his hand. The sheath had seemingly disappeared. “We can’t have you spicing things up before we even reach the Landgrave’s fortress, now can we?”
“Return those, thief,” I said, injecting enough steel into my voice to make a blade for Cludge.
Raibert waggled his finger at me. “I shall not, until we stand in the fortress’s shadow.”
“Return. Those.” I spat each word.
Raibert shook his head.
I folded my arms over my chest. “Cludge?”
Cludge stomped to my side. “You give Tekla daggers now!” He punctuated that last word with a gob of spittle.
Raibert, to his credit, didn’t quail at the sight of an angry half-giant. His smirk grew sharper. “You may take them back, Cludge, but first, you’ll have to catch me.”
With a roar, Cludge swung at Raibert, but the thief disappeared. No, it only appeared that way. Instead, he had somehow wound up behind Cludge. I blinked and then frowned. Had he studied the Flow? Impossible. The masters would never take on one such as him.
Cludge whipped around and tried to catch Raibert in his thick arms, but again, Raibert was too quick. Clearly this could go on for a while.
Thankfully, Raibert hadn’t completely disarmed me. I had another sheath of throwing daggers tucked up my sleeve. I eased one out into my palm, keeping my movements slight so as not to warn him. I dipped my mind into the Flow, allowing it to guide my thoughts, project my aim. There. Raibert didn’t know it yet, but his next dodge would carry him close to that large tree. A flick of my wrist, and he would be pinned to its trunk. I licked my lips, sucked in a breath, and—
“Enough!” Barzillai’s broad chest obstructed my view. He held out his arms between Cludge and Raibert. “You disturb the entire forest with you antics, and we cannot afford to let the Landgrave’s servants know of our approach. Raibert, return dear Tekla’s daggers, if you please.”
Raibert snorted. “You only invite her to sheathe them in your back if I do.”
“I do not believe that to be the case. Tekla may be an assassin, but I trust her.” He turned to face me. “Or is that trust misplaced?”
My gaze tripped over the large cross that hung around his neck. Bile clawed up my throat. Trust one who wore that symbol? Never. I would rather—
He leaned down ever so slightly, catching my eyes with his. “Tekla?”
I stared into the warm brown depths of Barzillai’s eyes. I felt as though I had fallen into an eddy in the Flow, buoyed and peaceful and . . . “No.” The word slipped from my lips without any thought on my part.
Barzillai smiled. “There, you see? Let’s continue.”
Raibert sighed and produced the daggers. He slapped them into my hand and set out along the road without another word.
I tucked the daggers back into their hiding place and nodded to Cludge. My companion grunted and started out, glaring at Raibert. Something told me that the thief would have a lumbering shadow for the next few hours. Good. Served him right.
A flicker of movement off to the side caught my attention. I carefully turned my head to the left to see what it was, but whatever it had been was gone. My eyes narrowed. A wild animal? Unlikely. Cludge and Raibert’s fight would have scattered any wildlife. Once again, I eased a throwing dagger into my hand. I glanced ahead at my traveling companions. Too risky to warn them. Whatever was out there might attack.
The bushes rustled behind me, soft and low, as if a small animal slid through the branches. My grip tightened on the slender blade for a moment. Once again, I dropped into the Flow. The light breeze caressed my hair and the mossy smell of the woods tickled my nose. My own heartbeat and breath thundered in my ears, but underneath that, I heard the crunch of dirt beneath another’s feet, behind me and to the right. I drew in a deep breath, blew it out through my nose, and then whipped around, flicking the dagger at my target.
The blade zipped through an on-rushing shadow.
My breath caught in my throat. The creature vaguely resembled a person but was more a seething blob of darkness, as though dark oil was parodying a man’s shape and moving like one of us. In my momentary panic, I lost hold of the Flow and fumbled with my next dagger. The thing, whatever it was, kept coming. It was almost upon me.
“Foul beast, begone!” The shout was like a crack of thunder.
The creature cried out and tumbled away from me.
Abelard strode past me, not even offering a glance in my direction. Instead, the mage-priest held up his right hand, palm open. “I abjure you, in the name of He whom I serve, to release your victim and depart this realm until the Time of Judgment.”
The thing writhed on the ground, but then the shadow slithered away, as if being blown apart by a strong wind. As it vanished, it slowly revealed the form of a boy, one who had only seen twelve summers if that. As soon as the shadow completely left him, the boy collapsed onto the ground, unconscious.
Barzillai appeared at my side, an arrow nocked in his bow. He drew the arrow back, but Abelard held up a hand to stop him. The mage-priest knelt down next to the boy and tugged something out of the boy’s hand. It appeared to be a trinket of some kind, a metal insignia. Abelard studied it for a moment before handing it to Barzillai. Barzillai took one look at it and cursed.
My eyebrows shot up. Such language, coming from one of the faithful. What would his God think?
“So what do we do now?” Barzillai asked. “If he is after the Shadow Crystal as well—”
“We continue,” Abelard said. “We have no other choice.”
Barzillai’s face contorted in a scowl so fierce, I worried he would set the metal trinket on fire. He nodded once, then tossed the trinket onto the dirt road. “Come. We must hurry.” He set off down the path.
What had him so upset? I quickly picked up the trinket and looked at it. It wasn’t much to look at, little more than an iron square embossed with a . . . a gold triangle, a small squiggle of ebony inside that.
My breath stuttered up my throat. I knew that symbol. It haunted my nightmares. It was why I traveled with Cludge. It meant that in spite of all of my precautions, I hadn’t run far or fast enough.
It was the symbol of the Archmage Intius.
I had to get rid of it. Now. I cocked my hand back to pitch the foul object into the woods, but gentle hands caught mine. I whirled around.
Abelard pried the trinket from my fingers. “A shadow-trap,” he whispered. “Meant to bend people to Intius’s will. If we do not dispose of it properly, it will simply ensnare another.” Abelard cupped his hands together, holding the trinket inside them. He closed his eyes and held his hands up to his lips. He murmured something and, for a moment, a look of serene peace passed over his features. Then he opened his hands, and the trinket was gone.
“What did you . . .” I winced at the weakness in my voice.
“It will trouble us no longer.” Abelard studied me for a moment, his gaze sweeping over me. Not in a lascivious manner, mind, but as though he were checking me for injuries. Then he nodded once and set out down the road, humming a tune I didn’t recognize.
I blew out a shaky breath. It was madness to stay, especially if Intius was somehow involved. But even the thought of abandoning them conjured up the memory of Barzillai’s eyes. I groaned. If it was madness, then I was just as mad as they. Best to continue and get this over with, the sooner, the better.