The soft strum of the minstrel’s dulcimer trickled through the dim tavern below the steady drone of voices and clinking tankards. Burning logs popped and crackled in the fireplace behind the bearded performer, casting long shadows across the room. Smoky tallow candles, mounted on unsanded columns flickered dimly. Dice clattered across a table, followed by hoots and laughter from the huddled audience.
Seated in a far corner, beneath the stairs to the second floor, Ahren sipped his lukewarm ale. Carelessly, he gazed over the decades of graffiti scratched across the weathered table. Shadows wormed across the booth’s wall. Ahren pretended not to see them. He sighed, then finished his clay tankard and slid it to the table edge. After weeks aboard ship, sailing to the city of Destri to deliver a strongbox for the Tyenee, a solitary ride across the country to Ralkosty was just what he needed.
A beer maid set a tankard brimming with stale swill on the table. Ahren handed her a pair of coppers and the weary-eyed wench winked, snatched his empty cup, and hurried away with a swish of her blue skirts. Her shadow from the candles behind her seemed to hesitate for a brief instant before fleeing under the direct light. Ahren shook his head and swigged the tankard, dismissing the animated shades as the products of ale and exhaustion.
It wasn’t the first time he had witnessed sentient shadows. He could still see Katze’s soft face, framed between black curls. No woman had ever haunted his memories as she did. And no woman ever would again.
“Pardon me, good sir,” said a boisterous voice.
Startled, Ahren turned to see a stout, square-bearded quellen standing beside the table. At almost four feet, he stood taller than most of his kind. Muscles bulged beneath the quellen’s tan shirt and his short arms appeared even thicker than Ahren’s.
“Yes?” Ahren said.
“My name is Wyrin.” The sour reek of wine wafted from his mouth. He removed a bulging leather satchel from his shoulder and set it on the table with a metallic chink. “I’m a blacksmith and wanted to show you some of my wares.”
Tradesmen moving from table to table in a tavern were hardly uncommon. Most peddled only small crafts or hocked their personal belongings trying to settle a gambling debt. A few attempted fencing stolen merchandise. But not once had a blacksmith ever approached him in an inn. Ahren gestured to the seat opposite him. “What do you have?”
The quellen hopped up into the seat and shifted nervously before untying the sturdy bag. “Something for everyone,” he said, spilling the contents partially across the table. “Spring traps, buckles, ax heads, anything you want.”
Ahren picked up a polished ring set in a crude wooden case. He ran his finger along the twisted woven design etched around the sides and the wide top. Ahren pressed a tiny nub on the side and a small hooked blade, no larger than a fingernail, sprung open.
“Ah, that.” Wyrin chuckled, dabbing the beads of sweat from his face. “Not overly useful, but effective if needed.”
“How much?” Ahren pushed the blade closed until the release button popped back into place.
Ahren’s brow rose. Any reasonable smith would demand at least twice that had they crafted it themselves. But the ring’s true origin didn’t concern him. He removed a pair of gold coins from his purse and handed them to the fidgety quellen.
Wyrin’s gaze darted to the bar room and then back to Ahren. “If you liked that ring, you might find this interesting.” He handed over a simple dagger sheathed in a dun leather scabbard.
Drawing the blade, Ahren rolled the checker-carved grip down his palm and held it tight. “Very nice.” He slid his finger down the deep groove running along the blade. “Good balance.”
“Not as flashy as some like, but that’s the idea. Twist the pommel.”
Ahren turned the mushroom-shaped knob capping the back end and one half of the dagger’s wooden handle opened, revealing a hollow cavity nestled inside. His eyes widened in impressed surprise. He felt along the inside of the smooth niche set through the tang and along the inside of the wood grip on the other side. Carefully, he closed the hinged door and twisted the pommel back into the original position, leaving no sign of the hidden compartment.
Wyrin held out his hand and accepted the dagger back. “I’ll wager a man such as yourself might find use for something like that. You’ll never find another like it.”
“What do you want for it?”
Sucking his lip, the fidgety quellen opened and shut the handle several times before answering. “Eight bishkas.”
Ahren set the coins on the table without a moment’s hesitation.
Wryin snatched the gold up and handed Ahren the blade. “Thank you. It’s been a pleasure doing business. If you are interested in any more of my goods, you should come to my shop.” He quickly swept the other merchandise back into his satchel and hurried off. The shadows inside the booth seemed to slink away as the quellen left.
The shadowy image of a woman’s soft face seemed to appear then vanish in the corner of Ahren’s eye. He blinked and stared at the spot the apparition had been, but saw nothing. Grabbing his tankard, he gulped it empty, trying to wash away the already ale-fueled paranoia and bitter memories. Years before, when he had been an initiate into the Tyenee, he’d thwarted Dolch, a ruthless thief lord with the demon-possessed powers of darkness. Only a few months back they’d met again, the moving shadows returning after Dolch had tracked him to Lichthafen, killing his beloved Katze on a savage quest for vengeance.
Forcing his attention elsewhere, he picked up his newest purchase. The fine dagger itself would have fetched six bishkas in any city. The well hidden compartment would double that. Ahren twirled it between his fingers, enjoying its exquisite balance. He twisted the pommel, opening the hidden compartment, and a folded scrap of parchment fell onto the table. Puzzled, he picked it up and read the two words written inside.
A cool wind blew down the dirt road, fluttering Ahren’s hair and rustling the leaves above, as he followed the lane to the blacksmith’s shop. The shop itself appeared normal in the moonlight. Yet the round, two-story house against it stood so low that Ahren could touch the eaves with little effort. His fingers slid closer to the dagger at his belt as he stooped and knocked on the sturdy door. A small inset window squeaked open, spilling light across Ahren’s face.
Wryin’s gray eyes peered through the small portal. “Ah, you came!” A bolt clicked on the other side and the small door swung open. “Please, please. Come inside.”
“I came to see your other wares,” Ahren said as he ducked though the low doorway into a room a few inches lower than himself. The heavy smell of smoke filled the humble house, fed by the dozens of candles and oil lamps burning from every shelf and tabletop. Polished beaten plates rested beneath many of the burning tapers, collecting spilt wax and reflecting their light in every direction.
The quellen smiled nervously as if trying to play down the excessive décor. “Can I get you something to drink?” He picked up a pewter mug and filled it from an open clay bottle from his small dinner table.
Ahren held up the tiny folded note. “What is this about?”
Wryin’s hand trembled as he set the bottle back down with a thud. “I’m damned. Cursed.”
Ahren’s brow rose. “Cursed?”
“Yes.” He handed the drink to Ahren and sat in one of the simple chairs beside the table. “Citavnah, the witch, she’s cursed me. Damned me to torment.” He lifted the bottle to his lips and gulped two mouthfuls down.
Eager to leave the frustratingly small room, Ahren glanced at the door. Listening to the insane ramblings of a drunken quellen was not how he wished to spend his evening.
“Don’t think me mad." Wryin leaned closer and whispered, "The shadows are watching me."
Ahren froze. His notion to leave now washed away in tingling fear. “The shadows?”
The blacksmith nodded. “They follow me. I see them creeping beneath trees, and in windows. They lurk everywhere, surrounding me, waiting for darkness to fall so they can swarm. Don’t tell me you can’t see them!”
Ahren lowered himself onto a small stool. “How did it happen?”
Wryin swigged the bottle again. “Taddia, my wife, she’d grown gravely ill. Priests, healers, no one could help her. She was dying. I couldn’t just stand by, so I went to Citavnah. The villagers would ridicule me for it, but they didn’t have to watch her suffer. If you love someone, truly love them, you’d do anything for them, wouldn’t you?”
Ahren nodded. He lifted the tankard and sipped the bitter vodka.
“Citavnah said she’d help me. She said I’d never lose my Taddia if I followed her instructions. The witch gave me a black gem and told me to fashion it in a curved knife. I could only work on it at night and had to burn the bones of a dead man in my forge, then mix Taddia’s blood in the water. So I did it.” He ran his hand across his mouth. “I made her the best blade I’d ever forged and when I returned to the witch’s house she told me to hurry home and my wife would be with me always.”
“She was dead in our bed when I returned. Gone.” He drew a long breath as tears welled in his eyes. “That night, the shadows in our house began to move. Not much at first. I thought it was the ale, but then they became more. I saw Taddia’s face in them, watching me from the ceiling beams and under the table. I can hear her voice at night calling for me. Cursing me. I’ve damned her,” he sobbed.
“Have you told anyone about this?
“That I made a deal with a witch?” he laughed. “No. ‘Wryin got what he deserved,’ they’d say, right before they burned me. It’s been three weeks. I can’t work in my forge, there’s shadows everywhere. So I decided to find someone from outside. Someone who won’t think me mad. Someone who can kill that evil witch for what she’s done.”
“But why me?” Ahren leaned closer. “There were others in the bar. Three men traveling to Ralkosty; surely they could help you.”
“I thought about it,” Wryin said, tears running down his leathery cheeks. “But then I saw the shadows. The shadows that follow you.”
Ahren swallowed, icy fear creeping up his spine.
“No one sees the shadows following me. No one. But I know you did, and I can see yours. You’re damned like me.”
A dark tendril wove across the far wall as one of the sputtering candles dimmed. Tingles slithered along the nape of Ahren’s neck, urging him to look behind him. Turning his head, he spied a flicker of movement in his own shadow cast from the lamp beside him. He jumped to his feet, nearly cracking his head against the low ceiling. Light spilled across the floorboards, sending the shades fleeing back to the corners and beneath the furniture.
Panting, Ahren gulped down the rest of the tankard. “Tell me where to find this Citavnah. I’ll leave in the morning.”
Small crimson birds chirped and fluttered in the treetops as Ahren rode down the narrow road the blacksmith had told him to follow. Beams of early sunlight shone through the branches, casting long shadows across the hard-packed trail. The peaceful morning did little to quell Ahren’s foreboding dread. Whatever this witch was, Ahren couldn’t help but doubt the mere circumstance of meeting Wryin in the tavern. Where does chance and manipulation meet? Was it fate which gave me the desire to ride across the countryside instead of sailing around? Was the decision to stop in this particular village truly my own?
An ancient moss-covered stone stood beside the road, its once elaborate carvings now faded and worn to little more than the vague face. Ahren steered his horse down a narrow path between the trees, heading deeper into the forest. Twisted branches hung low over the faint trail, snagging his clothes and forcing him to duck. The canopy above grew thicker, blocking out the sun’s warm glow. An eerie silence enveloped the woods. No songbirds called from the trees. No squirrels leaped through the branches. Only the soft rustle of wind-stirred leaves accompanied the horse’s slow clomps.
The path crested a low hill, slicking through the remains of a long-forgotten cemetery. Withered gravestones jutted like broken teeth or lay half buried in dirt and leaves. A broken statue watched Ahren ride slowly past, its stone face frozen in piety. Dark pits dotted the tiny graveyard beside mounds of loose soil sprinkled with bleached bones. Snorting, Ahren’s horse tugged against its reins. He patted the animal’s neck and urged it down the trail.
The agitated horse continued its protests, insistently trying to veer from the shadowy path. They reached a narrow brook softly trickling though a rocky ravine. A rickety bridge, completely hidden beneath an emerald blanket of thick moss, stretched across to the other side. With a loud snort, the horse stopped at the steep bank, refusing to go further. Ahren nudged with his heels and the horse reared up, nearly throwing him. Holding tight, he managed to calm the frightened animal long enough to dismount. It pulled against the reins, its eyes wide with fear. Ahren struggled to tie the leather cords around a slender tree.
Ignoring the horse’s whinnies and stomping hooves, Ahren inspected the rotting bridge. Carefully he set his foot on the mossy wood and bounced. It creaked, but held. He drew a breath and hurried to the other side, then continued down the trail.
Thick trees rose like church columns, holding aloft a dark canopy of gnarled branches. Leaves crunched under Ahren’s feet as he followed the twisting path over another hill and through a shallow valley. Tingles skittered along his neck. Something moved ahead.
Narrowing his eyes, Ahren peered through the woods to see a cloaked shape standing in the shadows crisscrossing the trail. It stood still, staring back at him with unseen eyes. Ahren stepped closer and the figure vanished.
Startled, he looked around, trying to see where the figure had gone. He spotted the stranger now to the left of him beside a broken tree trunk. A short curved blade extended from its hand. Ahren reached for his own dagger, but the apparition disappeared.
He whirled around, his heartbeat hammering in his ears. It stood to his right, not twenty feet away. Her pallid, wrinkled face stared at him from beneath the frayed hood. She raised her empty palm and then vanished.
Movement flickered in the corner of his eye and Ahren turned to see the witch beside him, her filthy-nailed fingers reaching for him. He jumped back, but felt a hand on his shoulder. Ahren spun to see the hideous witch behind him. Her hand shot to his throat, then lifted him off the ground.
“Ah,” she purred, ripping the dagger from his grip and dropping it to the ground. “Very nice.” She slid her blade under the neck of his shirt and sliced it open with an effortless caress.
Choking against the witch’s iron grasp, Ahren managed to look down. Inhaling deeply, she licked her thin lips. Her cool breath wafted across his chest. Citavnah ran her fingers over his skin. Veiny tendrils of flesh had grown around the knife’s bone handle, fusing it to her palm, thumb, and little finger.
“No wonder he likes you.” Her jagged nails dug into his neck, forcing him to look away. She twisted her grasp to the back of his neck and slid her bladed hand up under his throat. “Let’s go.” With a hard squeeze to the base of his skull, she marched him through the valley to a gray yurta nestled in a rocky clearing.
She pushed him through the leather door flap into the dark tent. The stink of stale smoke and rotted meat hung in the air. Ahren’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, making out the shapes of a small fire pit and several cluttered tables.
“He’s here, as you said,” she said.
Excellent. A hollow voice answered. Put him in the box.
Struggling against the witch’s grasp, Ahren tried to glimpse who had spoken, but Citavnah lifted him up. A dirt-caked sarcophagus lay along the far wall beneath a dusty cloth. She yanked open the thick lid and pushed Ahren inside on top of the brittle remains of a skeleton wrapped in rotted rags. Bones crunched beneath him as he fought against her. Her grip tightened around his neck, choking him. Futilely gasping, his head swam and his thrashing legs lost their strength. Still squeezing, she set a polished obsidian mirror at his feet, then slid the lid closed, plunging him into blackness.
Panting, Ahren pushed against the lid. The dry bones cracked under him, stabbing into his back as he pressed, but the heavy stone didn’t budge.
He drew a long breath, forcing panic aside. Slowly, he traced his fingers along the seam but found no gaps. He braced himself inside the narrow box and pushed his weight sideways against the lid, but it didn’t slide. Something slithered up his leg.
Hello Ahren. The voice rasped from all around him. Airy tendrils, like darkness itself, wormed though his clothes and slid along his skin. Do you know who I am?
Clenching his jaw, Ahren suppressed a scream. The darkness stroked up his neck, brushing his ear, quickening his panicked breaths.
Yes, you remember me.
As long as he’d live, Ahren would never forget the demon he’d seen in Dolch’s lair, the dark reflection of himself that smiled from inside a black mirror. The evil creature that had possessed the thief-master, giving him terrifying powers, was now inside the stone coffin with him.
You’re very clever. Strong, smart, passionate. I recognized it the first moment I ever saw you. I could make you powerful, Ahren. More than just human. More than anything that has ever lived. Its seductive voice whispered in his ears like a gentle lover and unseen fingers traced along his lips. Just let me inside you. Take me in, and I’ll give you everything you’ve ever wanted.
“You took what I want, bastard!” Ahren spat through clenched teeth. He kicked and twisted, trying to fight the demon from him, but the narrow coffin held him in place.
The blackness opened before him, revealing Katze’s beautiful face. She stood on a rooftop, her cloak billowing in the night’s breeze. The visage dissolved and reformed to her lying naked on his bed, her skin glistening in the candlelight just as it did the first night they had made love.
Is this what you want? Its amused voice continued. Soft, vulnerable, adoring? I doubt it.
Katze’s image melted away, replaced by a slender, beautiful woman scaling a brick building along a watery canal. Her auburn hair whipped in the wind as she swung onto the roof and quickly dispatched a lax guard with a thrust of her glass stiletto. She turned toward Ahren, as if sensing his gaze, and smiled. She then ran and sprang through an open window and out of sight.
This is your desire. Your urges, your fantasies betray you.
Memories of Karolina played before Ahren’s eyes. She writhed atop him, her tight muscular body moving with his. He smelled her sweat on his skin and her firm hands squeezed his as she held him down. The scene changed to him wrestling with her in a dark cellar, fighting for their lives while hidden urges welled within them both. No one had ever touched him as she had. And his desire swelled as if time had never passed since last they’d met. Twice the beautiful assassin has escaped him, the second by his own consent.
Cunning, lethal, strong. Don’t deceive yourself, Ahren. You want her, you always have. And only I can give her to you. Let me inside you. Take me in.
“No!” he screamed, scrunching his eyes. The image continued to play before him. He twisted his head, trying to escape it, but to no avail.
You’ll be strong. Stronger than Dolch, stronger than anyone alive. Oh how he’ll envy your power.
“I killed him!” Ahren growled, still fighting the unseen tentacles prying between his teeth and worming inside his cheeks. “The bastard is dead!”
Is he? The demon laughed. “He’ll find amusement in that claim. He loathes you, Ahren. How he wishes your blood on his hands. But no, I forbid him. And when he arrives he’ll embrace you as his brother. His stronger, favored brother.
Ahren’s sharp breaths quickened. Living darkness pressed him down, seeping between his lips and up his flaring nostrils. He lashed, kicking against the lid and knocking his head back against the stone floor as he fought it.
Let me in you. Take me and we will be beautiful.
Bones slid and crunched beneath him as Ahren rolled over. Invisible fingers pulled his hair and squeezed his flesh. He struggled, banging himself harder against the stone walls.
You’ll see darkness as you can’t imagine. Power at your fingers. A god feasting on all your desires. Imagine it and it will be yours.
“No! No!” he screamed. He fought harder, driving bone splinters into his legs with each kick.
The darkness howled back. Stop fighting! I will have you. What’s yours shall be mine. Surrender yourself. Yield to me!
“Submit, Ahren,” Karolina soothed. The phantom image caressed his face. “Take me.”
“Never,” he cried, fighting away her hand.
Karolina’s pale face scowled and her eyes blackened to dark orbs. “I will have you,” she wailed in the demon’s voice. Inky tentacles writhed inside her mouth then cascaded out, splitting her face apart as they latched onto his.
Screaming in terror, Ahren bucked and fought, wracking his body against the stone prison. The slithering mass squeezed his jaw, prying it open, and hair-like tendrils poured into his mouth. Choking, and gagging, he threw his head back to escape, slamming it against the unyielding stone and knocking him unconscious.
Sweet fragrance and soft moans roused Ahren. Through blurred vision, he made out a pale slender form atop him. Copper hair cascaded over her shoulders. She slid up and down, grinding herself against him. His pulse strengthened and grew with her movements. She lowered her upturned face toward his. Strands of sweat-slicked hair hung across Karolina’s cheeks.
“Good to see you again,” she purred, her fierce eyes sparkling in the firelight.
He tried to touch her moist skin but couldn’t. Tight bonds held his wrists above his head.
She slid her hands up his arms until her firm breasts pressed against his bare chest. “Going somewhere, lover?”
Ahren’s breath quickened Their bodies moved faster in their growing rhythm. He leaned up, running his tongue along her neck and kissing her jaw. A sour tinge of rot tickled his nose, but an intoxicating incense quickly washed it away. Pushing his arms back, he met her body with harder and faster thrusts. Moans of ecstasy, each one louder than before, escaped her lips.
Releasing her grip she sat higher, pressing down against him. He pulled against his bonds and kissed her rounded breasts. Their silky skin felt dry and spongy against his lips.
She bent down and kissed him, tugging his lips with hers. “I’m yours, Ahren. Tell me what you want.” Her acrid breath flooded his senses.
Blinking, Ahren’s vision cleared to see Citavnah grunting upon him. Folds of wrinkled flesh, slid against his. Purple spider webs of dark veins ran though her sagging breasts.
“Tell me,” she croaked through chipped yellow teeth. Dingy curls of gray hair hung across her hideous face.
Ahren screamed and struggled against the abrasive ropes at his wrists. The witch continued her movements, uncaring of Ahren’s realization. His sharp, panicked breath drew in more of the sweet incense wafting over him, fueling the arousal despite his horror. Citavnah dipped her curved knife into a shallow clay bowl beside the bed, coating it with runny black fluid.
“No, no!” he shouted, still fighting the bonds. She sliced his upper arm and increased her thrusts. An icy heat shot through Ahren’s body. Scrunching his face, he screamed and climaxed. Dizzying numbness swept over him and Ahren fell again into unconsciousness.
Ahren’s eyes flickered open, followed by a whirling vertigo. He still lay naked, bound to the filthy bed. Shadows danced and swirled across the yurta’s walls cast red in the light of dying embers. Drawing a long breath, he closed his eyes, forcing the dizziness to pass.
A pained groan gurgled beside him.
Breathe, child. Breathe.
Ahren craned his head to see Citavnah huddled near the wall, her wrinkled back toward him. She rocked back and forth with heavy breaths, then threw her head back with an agonized wail. The witch twisted her body, revealing a swollen belly. She maneuvered to her knees and dark blood exploded down her pale legs and pooled beneath her.
Terror seized Ahren’s gut as he watched the foul witch giving birth to whatever had grown inside her. He twisted the ring on his finger and jammed the small button along the side. The tiny hooked blade sprang open and he began cutting at the coarse rope binding his right arm. Citavnah’s loud breaths quickened. The fraying rope snagged the small blade. Steadying the ring with his thumb, Ahren furiously sawed faster.
Shadows writhed along the walls like hornets as the witch let out a shrill cry.
It’s coming. Wonderful!
The rope snapped in two. Reaching up, Ahren worked the tight knot still holding his other hand above his head. The harsh bonds loosened. He grit his teeth in pain and ripped his hand though the tight loop.
Citavnah screamed again, sending the animate shadows swarming toward her. They teamed through the air around her like whirling wisps of smoke.
Fervently, Ahren untied his ankles, chipping his nails until they bled. His pounding heartbeat hammered inside his ears a he tore the last of the knots free. Desperate, he scanned the dim room, searching for a weapon. His gaze narrowed on a crude cleaver lying on the table beside the bloodied remains of a plucked hen. He crawled to his feet. A sudden wooziness threatened to buckle his weak legs.
Citavnah cackled and a baby’s shrill cry filled the dim tent.
Forcing himself forward, Ahren snatched the rusted cleaver and charged the sweat-drenched witch straddling a glistening black pool. She spun her head toward him, her cracked lips twisted into a perverse, evil grin, and Ahren hacked the wide blade into her neck. Blood burst across the room, splattering over his naked body. She erupted in maddening laughter that gurgled and bubbled out from the jagged wound. Ahren swung again, cleaving through the side of her face, but the witch continued her roaring cachinnations. She lunged, driving her grafted blade at his heart. Leaping to the side, Ahren chopped the cleaver down. The heavy blade hacked through her wrist, sending a spray of blood across the yurta. Her gnarled hand fell to the floor, still clutching its cursed blade. Citavnah screamed and Ahren buried the cleaver into her head. Rage bellowed inside him. He chopped again and again until the witch’s still corpse lay silent at his feet.
Panting, he wiped the cold splattered blood from his face. He caught his reflection in the black mirror propped against the wall the witch had been facing. The image stared back at him with a disparaging smile and holding a small bundle to its bare chest.
Too late Ahren. Chuckling, it gazed down on the wrapped baby in its arms. What is of you is now mine.
Ahren swallowed the nauseating horror rising in his throat as a tiny hand reached up from the bundle toward the demon’s face.
Our child may have been conceived in flesh, but it has been born in darkness, born of me. It laughed.
Shadows swirled through the air around Ahren like tattered translucent sheets. He squeezed the heavy cleaver in his hand.
The dark reflection rolled the newborn over and gently pulled the blanket away. Black eyes stared out from the baby’s quivering face. Say hello to your death, Ahren. Do you want to choose a name?
The flying shadows danced with the demon’s laughter. Ahren hurled the heavy blade at the obsidian mirror, shattering it into hundreds of tiny shards. The swarming shades vanished, leaving him alone in the dim yurta as the laughter faded in the distance.
We’ll meet again. I promise.
Ahren’s overwhelming fear washed away, leaving a calm focus. His shredded clothes lay like useless rags beside the bed. He snatched the witch’s threadbare cloak from the floor and threw it over his shoulders. He lifted a candle from a weathered table and held it against the yurta’s felt walls. The orange flame caressed the gray fabric then caught. “I look forward to it.”