Time for “Speculative Story Saturday” here at Marcher Lord Press!
Hey, everyone, it’s John. I’m back with this week’s installment. Please don’t hate me.
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Cold wetness slithered across my body, pinning my clothes to puckered skin. My entire body ached, the worst throb between my temples. I swallowed a groan and shifted, trying to escape the object that poked me in my back.
“Tekla! Abelard!” Barzillai’s voice, distant and insistent, drilled into my mind.
Why was he so upset? I sat up and groaned. I blinked my eyes and looked around. Why was it so dark? Was it night? No, that couldn’t be right, not with such thick darkness. I rubbed my eyes for a few moments, trying to clear my vision, and yet the blindness remained.
The memories from the night before crashed over me. The man-wolves, being cut off from the Flow, Abelard’s shouts as a great power, both comforting and burning at the same time, slammed through me. I gasped and scrambled across the ground.
“Abelard! Barzillai!” My words burned my throat and I pitched headlong into a pile of musty dirt.
Someone thrashed through the bushes and footsteps thundered to my side. Strong hands helped me up and then I was wrapped in a crushing hug. The warm scent of leather and the outdoors washed over me. Barzillai. My arms twined around his neck of their own accord. I ground my teeth together to contain a sob. I hadn’t cried for years. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I am Tekla, an assassin of the Guild.
“I was so sure I’d lost you,” Barzillai murmured.
Armor clanked next to us. “Tekla, drink this.” A water skin was pressed into my hands. My fingers brushed against a mail glove. The priest. It had to be. What did he do, sleep in his armor?
No, such bitter thoughts weren’t appropriate. He had protected me when those foul beasts came to claim me. It wasn’t his fault I had lost touch with the Flow. Clearly Intius or the Landgrave had found a way. But how?
“What happened here?” The thief’s voice, low and silky. I hadn’t even heard his approach. My grudging respect for him grew just a little bit more.
I uncorked the water skin and drank deeply as the priest recounted the story. Barzillai finally released me, but he didn’t go far, settling in next to me, his shoulder pressed up against mine, an arm just behind my back. I wanted to lean into him, lose myself in his warmth, and fall asleep. At least then I could escape the darkness that closed in on me.
It wasn’t that I was afraid of the darkness. As an assassin, I had spent days in darkness and shadow, stalking my targets, shunning the light. But in those cases, I had the Flow to compensate. Now I was truly blind and lost. What good would I be now?
When Abelard mentioned the man-wolf’s gauntlet, I straightened up. “This gauntlet. What does it look like?”
Raibert spoke up. “A silver bracer, unremarkable in most ways. But there is a crystal embedded in it. It’s small, about the size of an acorn. It appears as though there is some sort of liquid inside. Water, perhaps? I’ve never seen its like.”
A chasm opened inside my stomach. No. It couldn’t be. “It’s a tear. My final tear.”
Barzillai shifted next to me, drawing closer. “Your what?”
My jaw worked as I tried to form the words. To explain would be to betray the Guild. But for the tear to be here, in the hands of man-wolves, meant that trust had already been broken. I swallowed. “When an assassin is inducted into our Guild, we are . . . tested, to prove our fearlessness and our ability to endure physical, emotional, and spiritual pain. During that testing, we must shed only one tear. It is collected in a phial such as that. Then our masters use that final tear to connect us to the Flow.”
“Which explains why that trinket has blinded you,” Raibert said. “The Landgrave hexed it, yes?”
I shook my head. “No, you don’t understand. The Guild collects our final tears, but then they protect them so that this cannot happen. They hold on to each tear until an assassin dies and then destroys it. For the Landgrave or Intius to have this tear . . .”
I didn’t want to consider the implications. For the Guild to be in league with the Landgrave, Intius, or both . . . No, this couldn’t be true. Yes, the Guild would work for men like the Landgrave and Intius, but they would never betray one of their own like this. I had to be mistaken. It couldn’t possibly be my tear. If only I had my sight!
I sat up straighter. I was an assassin. I did not need my eyes. I held out my hand. “Give me the gauntlet. I want to make sure.”
I could hear Raibert’s clothing swish as he approached. The gauntlet fell onto my palm. Far too light to be true armor, it was either meant to be decorative or hold the . . . I still couldn’t accept that it was my tear. Sucking in a deep breath, I probed the gauntlet’s surface with my fingers. The crystal had to be here somewhere.
Armor clanked. “Tekla, no!” Abelard shouted.
My finger grazed the crystal and the bottom dropped out of my mind. It felt as though I tumbled through frigid cold until I jerked to a halt. I couldn’t tell if I hung by my feet or if I was right-side up.
A harsh glow stabbed into my eyes. Any thrill I felt at my sight’s return was strangled the moment I realized that the light streamed from a man, one wearing long robes that appeared to be made of smoke and shadow. I quailed. Intius? No, I knew what he looked like. This man appeared younger . . . and yet far too old. He could only be one person.
“Landgrave Christoph.” Hopefully I sounded more confident than I felt.
“Tekla, I presume.” His face remained wreathed in darkness but I still saw a thin smile tug at his lips. “I had hoped to do this in person, but your band’s persistent doggedness leaves me no choice.”
Cold nibbled at my toes. I looked down. My feet were fading. I thrashed my legs, trying to free myself, but it was no use.
“The spell binding me to this wretched fortress is quite specific and I can’t seem to modify it. Only the life of a maiden of blood can set me free and give me the power of the Crystal. Right now, your life’s energy is flowing—if you’ll pardon the pun—through your tear and to me. Of course, Intius will be upset that I was unable to save your remains for his revenge, but I’m sure he’ll get over it in time. Thank you, dear one. With any luck, this will be quick.”
His image vanished in a burst of flame. I glanced down. The void had gobbled my feet and showed no signs of slowing. I could kick and fight, but it clearly wouldn’t help.
“Barzillai!” I shouted. “Cludge! Abelard! Help me! Please, someone help!”
They couldn’t hear me. At least, they didn’t answer. What else could I do?
A desperate thought tugged at my mind. I closed my eyes. The others might not hear me, but perhaps Abelard and Barzillai’s god could. “Are you there? Can you do something to get me out of this mess?”
Silence. I should have known. Now I would die and no one would mourn me.
Blessed Father, where are You? You promised to never leave me or forsake me, and yet, staring at Tekla, that was all I could feel.
No, that’s not true. I could feel Barzillai’s eyes boring into the back of my skull. He wanted me to intervene, but heaven help me, I didn’t know what to do! The Light simply would not respond to my bidding.
Tekla hung in the center of the clearing, her feet not touching the ground. Her head lolled forward as if her neck had been broken. I reached out a hand to her and felt the darkness shove me away. I couldn’t reach her, try as I might.
I spun toward Cludge. For some reason, the half-giant hadn’t entered the clearing when the others found Tekla and me. He wore a stoic expression, as if he had been carved from stone.
“Cludge, you can help her. I know it. Please, before it’s too late.”
Sadness flickered across Cludge’s face. Then he tromped forward. For a moment, his steps became difficult, as if he were pushing through a wall of molasses. But then he stood in front of Tekla. He cast a long look at me, and then rested one of his massive hands on top of her head.
I could sense the presence before I saw it. A warmth swept over me and it felt as though my hair stood on end. Then a flickering light appeared in the darkness, twinkling colors that organized themselves into the shape of a man.
“Greetings, Tekla.” The voice was little more than a whisper, yet it carried the strength of mountains in its tone.
I knew this being. As it drew near, more of its features became clear until I recognized the bulbous nose, the drooping eyelids . . .
He shook his head sadly. “That is not my name. I apologize for the deception, but it was necessary. You now see me as I truly am.”
I should have been annoyed. The brute had lied to me! And yet, he was so breathtaking all of my anger evaporated.
“Do you wish me to free you, Tekla?”
Hope surged through me. “Can you do that?”
He nodded. “I can, but the cost will be great to us both.”
“Your devotion to the Flow has trapped you here. I can free you. I can even restore your sight. But when I have done this, you will never touch the Flow again.”
I froze. Never touch the Flow? How could he ask me to do that? I needed the Flow. If I couldn’t immerse myself in its steadying power, I would be worthless to the quest.
And yet . . . I looked down. The void had swallowed me to my waist.
“If that is what it takes,” I said.
“And there is one thing more. I know your dreams, Tekla. I know you yearn for gold. But if I free you, you must promise me one thing. Do not let them sell the Crystal. Too much depends on its destruction.”
Not sell . . . “You ask too much, Cludge. First my power, now my profit?”
“I know the price is steep. But it is the only way. Promise me.”
I ground my teeth. What else could I do? “Fine.”
Cludge nodded. He opened his arms and his body dissolved, the light of his being wreathing me. I gasped as a shock rippled through me. Cludge’s radiance grew brighter and brighter until it drowned me, filling my world with glory . . .
I gasped and dropped to the ground. I sucked in deep breaths and pushed myself up.
The others stared at me, their eyes wide. No, they stared past me. I turned to see what they were staring at.
Cludge lay in a heap on the ground, his skin quickly turning ashen.
Ice sluiced through my veins. I scrambled across the ground to his side. “Cludge! Cludge, speak to me!”
“I told you the cost would be great to us both. But I did not tell you the cost to me would be greater.” His voice was little more than a wheeze.
I whirled on Abelard. “You! Priest! Do something!”
He stammered for a moment, but then his head dropped to his chest. I turned to the others. Raibert turned away. Barzillai knelt down and wrapped his arms around me. I screamed and thrashed in his grasp. He released me and I threw myself on Cludge.
“No! This isn’t right! This isn’t—”
“Tekla. Remember your word. Remem—” His breath stuttered for a moment. Then his body relaxed. Cracks snaked through his skin and, with a sigh, his form collapsed and turned to dust.
For one brief moment, I thought I saw flickering lights where my companion once lay. And then they were gone, swallowed up in the surrounding gloom.