Verge of Darkness, page 1
Verge of Darkness
Copyright © 2016 Ollie Odebunmi
All Rights Reserved
Table of Contents
The Philosopher’s Folly
The Desolate Peaks
The Jade Castle
To Grasp a Breeze
The Hunting Party
A Chance Meeting
The Ghost Fortress
The Isle of Kandros
Ausak Demon Bane
Hounds in the Night
The High Priestess of Mithros
Maggots in the Gloom
Towers in the Clouds
Threads of Fate: Book Two Teaser
Acknowledgements and a Word from the Author
Elphemina, the High Priestess of the ancient Order of Mithros had been concerned for a while. A nagging worry at the edge of her consciousness had been causing her sleepless nights.
Seeking answers, she walked the paths of shadow, her spirit-body tracing the myriad threads that determine the fate of man and possible events to come. It was an exhausting process, and she was close to giving up in despair, when a pulsing gold thread drew her attention. Tracing it to its originator, she observed a fair-haired young man hunched over a yellow-aged parchment in a large chamber full of floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with books and scrolls. Though unknown to her, he was oddly familiar – perhaps the cast of his features, the colour of his eyes, or something indefinable.
Deciding this warranted more investigation, the priestess retreated to a small room adjoining her quarters. A large oval glass-topped table dominated the windowless room. A large sunburst in glorious colour was painted on the ceiling directly above the table, and a low shelf containing a line of coloured fist-sized stones, ran along a wall.
Elphemina was a tall regal woman with long golden hair pulled back and tied at the nape of her neck flowing down to the small of her back. Her unlined face and well-formed body suggested a woman in her prime years, but something about her curiously coloured golden eyes suggested she was much older. Indeed, she was older beyond imagining, for she carried the memories of her predecessors dating back a thousand years. Such a burden has a certain...effect.
Grasping a red scrying-stone, she passed it over the table and whispered the words of power. The room darkened and the glass turned opaque before revealing an image. Elphemina saw the remains of an ancient city, now a blighted landscape of jumbled rocks and huge stone blocks. What remained of seven towers leaned drunkenly in various states of disrepair. She suppressed an involuntary shiver as a chill ran down her spine, for she recognized the city.
She passed the red stone over the table again, and another scene presented itself. A young boy, dark-skinned and slender, was in earnest conversation with a scrawny, bald old man wearing a ridiculously elaborate ostrich-feather cloak. The boy was laughing, his clear brown eyes sparkling as the old man made a jest.
The scene faded, and Elphemina saw an ice-covered landscape. A figure swathed in furs sat huddled before a fire in a cave, while thick snowflakes swirled in the wind outside. A huge snow-bear loomed in the mouth of the cave and charged at the figure. As the figure stood, Elphemina saw it was only a boy, though rather large for his age. Trapped, the boy didn't cower in fear, but drew a broad-bladed dagger and met the enraged monarch of the mountains head-on.
The boy and the bear faded away, and the High Priestess saw a young girl of perhaps ten summers sitting under a tree in a large well-kept garden bordered by high trees. The sun shone from a clear blue sky, but as Elphemina watched, black storm clouds sped across the sky in double-quick time, and the bright summer's day became dark and gloomy.
Rain lashed down, and lightning raced across the heavens. But the young girl didn't hurry indoors to seek shelter in the many-storied building Elphemina could see in the background. Instead, she stood and ran about, face raised to the sky, and eyes alight with excitement. Rainwater plastered her once-curly dark hair to her head and face, and her white dress to her body. A jagged flash of lightning appeared to spear her atop the head, illuminating and turning her translucent, making her skeletal structure momentarily visible to the watcher. Elphemina gasped in surprise for the lightning sprite didn't shrivel into a burnt-out husk. Instead she raised her head to the heavens, mouth open in joyous laughter.
The glass atop the table turned dark, then assumed its normal consistency.
The High Priestess took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. Returning the scrying-stone to the shelf, she sat on an upholstered high-backed chair, leaned back and closed her eyes. Frustratingly, she still had no answers to assuage her concerns.
Weary, Elphemina climbed to her feet, and moved to the door leading to her bed chamber. Tomorrow, she would walk the paths of shadow again, seeking more enlightenment.
The Philosopher’s Folly
“No stinking dark-skinned heathen lays his hands on me and tells me what to do!” The words echoed around the now silent tavern, which only a short while ago had rung with appreciation for the musical talents of Aeneas, the young son of Casca, the tavern owner.
Some had banged their tankards on tables, spilling more ale on the already sodden straw-covered floor. Others had raised their voices in loud cheers, while those more sunk in their cups, sat silently with moist eyes, as the haunting notes of the seven-stringed kithara touched their very souls.
Aeneas had left the raised podium at the far end of the tavern, winding his way through the packed room toward the bar where a goblet of squeezed summer fruits juice awaited him. A leg snaked out, and unable to keep his balance, he sprawled on the floor, his kithara beneath him.
The neck of the musical instrument lovingly crafted by his father, cracked under his weight. Not content with that, the lout who tripped him placed his foot on Aeneas’s backside, and propelled him face-first into one of the shallow trays of straw placed throughout the tavern.
Aeneas scrambled to his feet with bits of straw in his fair hair, and a cut on the bridge of his nose. His face crumpled as he saw the broken kithara. The lout guffawed, showing black rotten teeth as his two associates grinned and patted him on the back.
“You shouldn’t have done that my friend,” Pagan said in a soft voice, as he stepped forward to place a restraining hand on the bully's shoulder.
He was a relatively small man, a full head shorter than the bully and his associates. The hulking brute, his lank dark hair tied in two braids either side of his heavily bearded pock-marked face, squinted down at Pagan, his pig-small eyes glinting. There was more sport to be had here. This half-sized heathen would be taught not to lay his pox-ridden hands on his betters.
Pig Eyes hawked and spat on the floor as his friends moved alongside him. Big burly men, clad in tight leather trews with ale-distended bellies straining against their belt lines, and sleeveless jerkins exposing hairy muscular arms. They were not local men. The scars criss-crossing their forearms, and crudely fashioned markings adorning their upper arms, indicated they were wande
Pig Eyes’ breath, a noxious mix of sour ale and onions, washed over Pagan, as a heavy fist lanced toward his face. Lamp-light glinted off the wicked punch-dagger protruding from the big scarred fist. Pagan shifted to his right, and hammered the edge of his hand into the inside of his assailant’s elbow. Pig Eyes grunted, dropping the dagger as pain shot up his arm. Pagan grabbed the arm, and twisting on his heel, used the bully’s momentum to hurl him into his companions.
As they fell, one cracked his temple on the edge of a table and slumped senseless on the floor. The other surged to his feet with intent, only to stumble back down on the seat of his pants, choking and gasping for breath as Pagan struck him on the throat with just enough force to incapacitate him.
Pig Eyes wasn’t finished. He was a veteran of numerous battlefield skirmishes and tavern brawls, and damned if a dark-skinned outlander was going to best him. Faced twisted in hate, he hurled himself forward, arms spread. “I am going to break you in half, barbarian,” he snarled. Pagan didn’t back away, but stepped into the embrace, snapping a front elbow strike into the charging man’s temple.
The big man’s eyes rolled up in his head as he hit the ale-sodden, straw-covered floor. He didn’t get up this time.
Pagan stepped back and surveyed the tavern. The other patrons, nursing their precious tankards of ale and platters of food, had stepped back in a loose circle to allow the combatants room. They were predominantly locals, aware of the prowess of the quiet, dark-skinned man who had arrived amongst them a couple of years earlier. He had taken up residence at the curiously named Philosopher’s Folly tavern, where he helped Casca keep the peace when itinerant mercenaries, labourers, or the occasional drunk got too boisterous. Always polite and helpful, after their initial misgivings they had accepted him as one of their own.
The sudden burst of violence had lasted only a few heartbeats. Casca appeared from his station behind the bar, and with the help of a serving maid, cleared up the debris of upturned and smashed furniture.
Six members of the city watch arrived to escort the mercenaries – all the loutishness and fight beaten out of them, to the city boundaries.
Pagan put his arm around Aeneas’s shoulders. “Are you all right son?” he asked. The fair-haired young man, the very image of his father, looked up into the brown eyes of the man who had come to his aid, and nodded.
Casca approached and ruffled his son’s hair. “Off you go now Aeneas, get yourself cleaned up. There is a cool drink awaiting you round the back.” He glanced around. It was late, and the tavern was emptying save for a few die-hard drinkers. “Pagan and I have to clear out these motherless louts.”
Grinning widely, Casca raised his voice. “Come on, youse sheep shaggers, haven’t you got homes to go to? The fun is over for the night. Pagan needs his beauty sleep, or should I get him to throw your sorry backsides out?”
With the last stragglers departed, Casca barred the door, and with Pagan's help, opened wide all the widows to let in what hot, still, summer air there was, to sweep away the smell of stale sweat and spilt ale. The two serving girls Casca employed busied themselves clearing away tankards and platters, rearranging furniture, and sweeping up the floor.
Their night’s work done, Casca slipped the girls a silver coin each, before bidding them goodnight. Some thought he overpaid them, but as owner of the most popular tavern in the city, he wasn’t short of coin, and believed in paying a fair wage for a night’s work.
Casca turned to Pagan. “Now that we are alone, I’ll stand you a drink and a pipe.” Reaching under the bar he grabbed a bottle of their special concoction – a blend of squeezed summer fruits and a strong spirit distilled from barley.
Both men sat at a table, and Casca poured each a small measure of the fiery liquid. Pagan took a sip, and regarded the man who had become the closest friend he had ever had. He had bronzed fair skin and long fair hair tied back at the nape of his neck. Deep-set blue eyes in a faintly ascetic but strong face gazed back at Pagan. “My gratitude for standing up for Aeneas,” Casca said.
Pagan shrugged. “It was nothing. I have always disliked bullies, and Aeneas is a fine boy. I love him like he was mine.” He took another sip of the fruit-flavoured spirit. Casca had two children. Aeneas was thirteen summers, and a daughter Althea of nine summers, who lived with Casca’s sister Leonna. She and her husband Marcos, had three daughters whom Althea loved spending time with. She loved her father and older brother dearly, but felt more at home with her cousins in a spacious house with a large garden, rather than a smelly old tavern. Casca didn’t begrudge her it.
Casca’s wife, a fey beauty who always thought the grass was greener on the other side, had run off with a rich merchant a few years earlier, leaving him to bring up their children.
He was an unusual man, hardly your typical fat-jowled tavern owner with a gross belly straining against a stained apron. Casca was a spare-framed man who fancied himself a philosopher and scholar. He liked nothing better than sitting ensconced in the great library of Petralis, studying ancient tomes and age-bleached parchments. A veritable source of knowledge, he and Pagan had spent many long nights discussing the rich and sometimes dark history of Petralis and the surrounding lands.
Sharing Casca’s love of history and ancient lore, Pagan loved exploring the ancient ruins to the west of Petralis. According to Casca, these were the remains of the once mighty city of Tor-Arnath. But that was all he divulged. Usually verbose and animated regarding such matters, Casca was strangely reticent about Tor-Arnath, and tried to dissuade his friend from exploring the ruins.
Pagan took a last mouthful of the fiery but smooth-tasting spirit, and grinned at Casca. “Thanks to your sorry backside, I’ve developed a bit of a taste for this foul-tasting poison. It feels like my insides are on fire. Now what happened to that pipe you promised?”
Casca laughed. “You dark-skinned folk could never handle your drink.”
Pagan snorted in derision. “And how would you know? I am the only one of my kind you’ve ever met. Now get that pigging pipe out. That is real stuff for civilized folk, and a fine way for men of class and culture to end the evening.”
“What would you know of class and culture?” Casca retorted with a broad grin. Digging into a pouch on his belt, he pulled out a handful of the dried flowers of the hagash plant and stuffed them into the bowl of his long-stemmed pipe. Lighting a thin taper from the lamp on the table, he set it to the buds and took a lungful of smoke before passing the pipe to Pagan.
The stem of the pipe was worked with intricately carved leaves and glyphs. Worn by time and constant use, Pagan squinted at the symbols trying to make them out. “You should feel honoured my friend,” Casca announced with mock solemnity. “That pipe was passed down from my great grandfather to my grandfather, to my father and on to me. The Goddess knows, it is older than time itself!” Laughing at the absurdity of his statement, he half choked as he blew out a great gout of smoke. “Now get your lips around that before it goes to waste.” Pagan did so, and drew down a lungful of the aromatic, narcotic smoke.
The two friends sat in easy companionable silence passing the pipe. Casca got up to shut the windows, barred the shutters, and the sweet aromatic essence of hagash filled the room.