PLAGUE OF SHADOWS
Currently in Editing, Book 2 of the award-winning Aldoran Chronicles saga will be available Fall 2019
Excerpt: Chapter One
JORAN RAN AS fast as he could.
He stumbled over his own feet as he struggled to make his way down the stone encasement. His hands were too busy trying to fasten the gold clasp of his new white mantle to pay attention to where he was going. His nostrils flared as his unpracticed fingers fumbled with the pin. The needle finally slipped into place, and he released a short sigh of relief, then shifted his belt to keep his scabbard from bouncing against his leg.
“Why did the Archchancellor have to pick today of all days for a visit?” His voice followed him down the cold stone as he worked his way farther into the bowels of the White Tower. How deep do these tunnels go? he wondered.
The scent of oil from the torches lining both sides of the narrow passageway did little to mask the lingering stench of mildew. Occasionally, he caught a trace of rich earth—dark soil he hadn’t smelled since he was a boy on his uncle’s farm in northern Cylmar.
It was Joren’s first week as a member of the Black Watch, and he was already off to a bad start. He wasn’t sure why the new recruits had been summoned, only that his late arrival was certain to have him tossed out on his ear. He couldn’t afford to lose this position. He needed the work.
Being the third son of a poor tailor, Joren had no inheritance, no chance of a position within the family business, small as it was. His older brothers had already filled those roles, which left him with nothing more than the odd bit of day labor from other merchants in town. So, when the Black Watch had arrived in Ecrin to spread word that the new High King was looking for able-bodied men from Cylmar to fill their army’s ranks, Joren was one of the first to sign up.
It had only been a few weeks since the deaths of Overlord Saryn and the previous High King. Since then, Prince Dakaran had wasted no time in claiming his father’s throne and declaring Cylmar as part of the New Elondrian Empire. With this announcement, men from Cylmar had flooded over the borders, looking for work.
At twenty-five years of age, Joren was already too old to find an apprenticeship with a local guild and was thankful to have the opportunity to be an armsman. It was an honest profession, one whose skills could be used for future work down the road. Best of all, he could help protect Aldor from the danger posed by these wielders. Their presence seemed to be growing.
The sounds of booted feet and clanging scabbards ahead urged his pace. “Good, I’m not too late.” He couldn’t have picked a worse time to have a privy run. He emerged from the tunnel and found himself at the edge of a deep chasm, with a rather impressive stone bridge leading across.
He didn’t have time to stop and marvel, as the rest of his company had already made it to the other side and were passing through an enormous archway into another section of the cavern.
The doors leading into that section began to shut.
No! He ran as fast as he could across the ancient bridge, barely slipping between the monolithic doors just before they closed. A low rumble reverberated off the cavern walls as they came to a stop. He turned and was surprised to find there were no guards stationed on the inside. Strange, he thought. Then who shut them? Not wanting to draw attention, he rushed over to where the other recruits were waiting and fell in line.
“You!” a woman’s voice called on his left.
Joren stiffened. Was she talking to him? He turned. Several of the bulradoer stood not far from the Watch, their black hooded robes shading their faces. One of the shorter bulradoer was looking in his direction. He wasn’t exactly sure what purpose the bulradoer served, but from the rumors, it was best to stay as far away from them as possible.
He cast a brief glance at the recruits beside him and finally took a step forward.
“Me?” he asked, his hand trembling as he pointed to himself.
“Yes, you. We require your assistance.”
“Of course . . . mistress,” he said with a curt bow, not quite sure how to address her. Not that it mattered. He’d been caught and was likely about to lose his position. With a nervous gulp, he left his place in line and headed in her direction. “My name’s Joren, mistress. How can I help?”
“Just stand there,” she said, pointing to her right.
Joren did as she said. The bulradoer seemed to be distracted by something else, so he used the time to get a better look at the cavern. It was massive, its domed roof shrouded in darkness. He wondered how high up it went. He was also surprised by how warm it was, considering how far underground they were. The place smelled of torch tar and nothing else. None of the lingering, fetid smell of mildew he had experienced in the tunnels on his way down.
In front of him stood a circular barricade of stones, each one marked with a unique symbol. Even if he could read, he doubted he could have translated them. They looked ancient. A half dozen of the white-robed inquisitors mingled off to the side, watching as the bulradoer gathered around a large block of stone inside the ring.
Behind the bulradoer stood one of the largest trees Joren had ever seen. Easily two, maybe three times that of a normal oak. It was a sickly-looking beast, its branches twisted and gnarled, like it had been plagued with an arthritic malady. It reminded Joren of his grandmother’s hands, with the knuckles and joints bent awkwardly to the sides. How it had managed to grow so far underground and in the middle of a cavern, Joren couldn’t guess. One thing was for sure: it didn’t look alive anymore. The branches were bare, not a single hint of green in sight.
A pedestal had been placed between the tree and the rectangular block of stone. The slab was about seven feet in length and stood about three feet in height. Someone was lying on top of it, but from where Joren was standing, he couldn’t quite make out who it was.
Behind the tree lay a pool of black liquid. The light from the torches reflected off the surface, giving it the distinct appearance of tar. He shivered when he noticed it was moving, as if an invisible giant was stirring it with an enormous ladle.
One of the bulradoer waved in their direction, and the woman beside him headed into the circle of stone, motioning him to follow.
Joren scrambled to catch up. Once inside, he was better able to see the proceedings.
The female bulradoer led him through the gathering of inquisitors and around to the side of what he could now see was a marble slab with distinct black veins. The body lying on top turned out to be one of the inquisitors. To say the man was obese would have been an understatement. His bald scalp and face were covered with a web of tattooed symbols.
The inquisitor’s robes were bloodstained, and judging by the hole in the front of his neck, he clearly wasn’t going to be getting back up. Strangely, Joren didn’t notice the pungent smell of death coming from the body. He frowned. Why was the man there? For that matter, why were any of them there?
“Is he dead?” he whispered to the woman beside him, instantly regretting the rediculous remark.
“Unfortunately,” a deep voice behind him said, causing Joren to jump.
He turned to see a tall gaunt-faced man in crimson robes moving through those gathered behind him. Joren’s eyes widened when he noticed the mitre on the older man’s head, and he quickly bowed.
The Archchancellor studied him with sunken eyes. “Is this our volunteer, Lenara?”
“It is, Your Grace,” the female bulradoer said.
“I’m Joren, sir,” he said with a second bow, not quite remembering when he had volunteered.
The Archchancellor nodded and moved to the podium at the head of the slab and opened a book that was resting on top.
Lenara motioned Joren forward, removing her hood as she did. She was at least ten to fifteen years older than he was, her curly auburn hair trailing loose down her back. She turned, and he paused when he caught her eyes. They were reddish-purple, almost raspberry, and, when viewed from a certain angle, had tiny gold flecks that seemed to draw him in. Realizing he was staring, he quickly looked away.
The other members of the bulradoer filed in behind them, taking their places around the altar, forming a circle with the Archchancellor at its head. The Archchancellor’s attention was preoccupied at the moment as he flipped through the pages of the large book resting on the stone-cut podium. He paused briefly to look at the inquisitors. “Dismiss the Watch.”
One of the white-robed individuals stepped outside the stone ring, and the rest of the Tower’s guards turned and left. Joren didn’t know if he should feel honored or worried at being the one member allowed the privilege of staying.
The Archchancellor spoke, and Joren turned back around. He was reading from the book, but Joren had no idea what he was saying. He’d never heard the language before. He leaned over to the female bulradoer. “What’s going on?” It almost looked like the Archchancellor was performing an incantation. But that would be absurd, since he was the head of the White Tower.
“Quiet,” Lenara whispered, her tone stern.
“Is that magic? I . . . I thought we were here to destroy magic?”
The Archchancellor stopped his reading and looked up. “The only way to stop magic is with magic. Magic isn’t tangible. It’s like the wind. You can’t see it. Only its effects. It can’t be destroyed any more than you can destroy the wind, or light.” The Archchancellor raised his palm, and suddenly a ball of light appeared.
Joren nearly swallowed his tongue.
“However, it can be contained,” the Archchancellor said, cupping the light between his hands, momentarily snuffing it out.
Joren’s mind was racing. Suddenly, everything around him felt wrong, like he’d opened his eyes and realized he was standing on the edge of a cliff but didn’t know how he’d gotten there.
The Archchancellor—the head of the White Tower—was a wielder? He realized the Archchancellor was still speaking and tried to focus.
“. . . why it falls on the White Tower to contain this threat.” He lifted his arms to those gathered around the altar. “We are the only ones equipped with the knowledge of how to battle this evil. It is a great burden we bear, having to allow our bodies to be vessels for magic’s use, but it is a burden we will gladly suffer if it means saving but a single soul the pain of its existence.”
The Archchancellor truly seemed anguished about having to use magic. Joren could certainly see it on his face. The gauntness in his cheeks, the bags under his eyes, even the wrinkles of his brow, all spoke to the lingering toll magic must be taking on his body.
“Whatever I can do to help, Your Eminence,” he said with a slight tilt of his head. What else was he going to say, standing there surrounded by wielders? He was suddenly feeling quite alone. No wonder they had sent the rest of the recruits out.
The Archchancellor smiled. “You have no idea how relieved I am to hear you say that. You have a special quality that I could sense the moment you walked into the room.”
Joren spared a quick glance at Lenara and the other bulradoer. It seemed they were all looking at him. “I do?” The man sounded sincere, but there was still this lingering doubt. Maybe it was just nerves. This was his first week after all, and he wanted to make a good impression.
“You are a power for righteousness, my young friend. And that power comes from here.” The Archchancellor placed his hand over his chest. “A pure heart. And I need that purity now to help me restore another righteous soul—one that has dedicated his life to helping the peoples of Aldor, one who has proven time and again to be a force for good against the wielders of this land, one who has given his very life to defend us all. The man who lies before you was murdered last night by the very ven’ae he sought to save.”
Joren looked at the dead man lying on the slab and clenched his fists. It seemed that even the White Tower wasn’t immune from the death and destruction of these rogue wielders. “What do you need me to do?”
The Archchancellor smiled. “Please,” he said, motioning to the altar, “step over here and we’ll begin.”
Joren took a couple of steps forward, stopping in front of the slab where the large man lay. The branches from the tree were casting eerie shadows across the prostrate body.
“I will need you to help me stabilize our sleeping inquisitor.”
Sleeping? The man wasn’t even breathing. Nonetheless, Joren leaned over and laid his hands on the dead man’s arm.
The Archchancellor cleared his throat. “That’s not exactly what I had in mind. What I meant was that I will need your help in stabilizing his spirit.”
“His spirit? How do I—”
“Hop up on the stone and I’ll explain it to you.”
Joren felt a slight twinge of unease but followed the Archchancellor’s instructions anyway. The slab was cold, even through his uniform.
“That’s good. Now if you could just lie down right there beside him, I’m going to use your inner strength to help stabilize our friend here. He will be a bit disoriented from his journey back to us.”
Joren looked at the dead man beside him, his earlier apprehension growing as the seed of doubt took root. “What should I do?”
“Just lie back and relax. We are attempting to bring his spirit back from where it was sent. This chamber is a very special place. It holds a fissure that breaches clear through to the underworld.” He pointed at the branches above him. “This is the Tree of Souls. Its roots reach down into the fissure and act as a conduit for these spirits to be brought back into the realm of the living.”
Bringing souls back from the underworld? Was that even possible? This was sounding more and more like a very bad idea. He was about to say something to that effect when he felt someone take his hand. He turned. Lenara had left the circle and was now standing beside him.
She looked just as surprised by the contact as Joren, but she didn’t release her grip. In fact, she tightened it. Her hand felt good in his. It was warm, comforting. Tilting his head, he looked up at the Archchancellor behind him. “Will I feel anything?”
“It will be over quickly.” The Archchancellor raised his arms just like before and began to read from the book. He started chanting in the unknown tongue, and a soft breeze stirred through the cavern. It blew across Joren’s face, stirring Lenara’s robes.
As the chanting grew, so did the wind, growing to a roar as the gusts encircled the cavern. Over the sound, Joren thought he could hear something else. It might have been a baby crying, or possibly a young girl. It was unsettling. The weeping soon turned to wailing, and then an ear-piercing scream. And not from just one individual but thousands. Millions.
He wanted to put his hands to his ears, but his arms wouldn’t move. What was happening to him? He raised his head and saw that the lower branches of the tree had wrapped themselves around his arms and legs and were working their way upward. When had that happened? He hadn’t felt them. He tried to say something, but the rush of the wind and the strange chorus of voices drowned him out.
He looked at Lenara. There was a strange sadness in her eyes, but her hand continued to squeeze his. For some reason, he could still feel her touch. He was determined not to embarrass himself in front of her, so he closed his eyes and opened his mouth to take a deep breath, but as soon as he did, something clawed its way inside.
His eyes ripped open. He tried forcing his mouth shut but it wouldn’t. Something was holding it in place, spreading his lips farther apart. He could hear his jawbones popping at the joints, searing pain ripping through them further still. Tears flooded his eyes, momentarily blurring his vision. His mind screamed out, but no sound came. He watched in horror as the tree’s branches, having now wrapped his body like a cocoon, were forcing themselves into his open jaws. He howled silently as they pushed deeper and deeper inside, down his throat and into his gut.
Joren tilted his head to get the Archchancellor’s attention—something had gone wrong—but the Archchancellor’s face held no pity, no remorse, no disgust. His focus lay solely on the book in front of him and his chanting.
Joren’s body convulsed. The tree was now deep inside him. He could feel its limbs moving around in his chest and stomach as if he were in a constant state of retching and yet not able to relieve the pressure. Everything spun as the nausea took over.
Joren had seen men in pain before. Once, he saw Tallis Nareen have his entire arm ripped off at the elbow after getting it caught in one of the stone presses, but even then, he couldn’t imagine the pain being more than this.
Joren looked to his right and found Lenara’s raspberry-colored eyes staring back at his. Another harsh jolt of pain brought his attention back around as the screams began to fade and a single voice came into focus. It grew louder. Joren searched the faces of those standing closest but couldn’t find the source.
The voice was growing more distinct. Almost like it was coming from . . . inside him. It seemed to be laughing.
Suddenly, the branches retracted from his mouth, and he realized he had no feeling. The pain was gone. He spared a quick glance to his side to see if Lenara was still gripping his hand. She was.
Is it over? Why can’t I talk?
“Get rid of the old body,” the Archchancellor said as he glanced over the podium at the slab.
Joren watched as the bulradoer struggled to hoist the inquisitor beside him off the stone. Didn’t it work? What happened? He tried to speak but nothing came out. He tried to move; his limbs were unresponsive. He tried to look at Lenara, but even his eyes no longer obeyed. Help! Something’s wrong! he screamed. But no one heard. Panic took over.
Suddenly, his entire body started moving on its own. He could hear someone talking, but there was no one there. Other than being able to tell it was the voice of a grown man, he had no idea who it was.
Someone please tell me what is going on!
Everything faded and the darkness took him.
The Tree of Souls had gone still once more, as had the pool of inky shadows behind them. Closing the book, Valtor made his way to the side of the altar and looked down at his work.
The young recruit looked almost peaceful, considering the amount of blood that was seeping from his ruined mouth. It saturated the front of his white tunic and mantle.
“Heal him, Lenara.”
The short bulradoer released her grip on the guard and waved her hand over his jaw. She repeated one of the first healing incantations taught to all bulradoer, and the bones snapped back into place as the lacerations knitted themselves together. The guard twitched, the fingers on his hands knotting into fists as the skin around his mouth resealed, revealing a rather sadistic grin. The guard sat up and looked at Valtor.
“Where is Ferrin? Where is my dear smith?”