Dark Roads Book One - The Pact

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Chapter One

Submitted: December 17, 2018

Reads: 505

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Submitted: December 17, 2018

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Serenity Walker woke from her sleep to the quiet snap and pop of burning logs. The crackling fire chased away the chill of the moonless desert night, and she welcomed it, smiling. No lonely drifter could refuse the satisfaction of a good campfire.

Turning over in her bedroll, she opened her eyes to see who'd come to visit.

The flames burned high, much higher and brighter than those of the small cooking fire she'd built several hours ago. The soothing glow warmed her skin like a mother's hand, but the brilliant dance held an exotic feel. Something otherworldly. Though the desert around her stretched bone-white and barren under the spray of stars, the smell of jungle lingered in the air like a prowling, primordial spirit. Her horse nickered from the edge of the camp, anxious, and shuffled farther away from the feral light.

Her visitor sat across from her, on the other side of the fire. Between the licks of flame, his face lay hidden from her. No surprise there, though. Darklings rarely showed their faces.

So you're awake then, fleshling?

His words echoed in her head. They came voiceless and timeless, a resonating whisper like a feline purr. D'aej, come out from his den in the back of her mind to speak with her in person. Or, as close to "in person" as a bound darkling like D'aej could manage. A visual trick of the senses, a ghostly projection. He might not be really be there—like this fire he'd created, only an illusion—but if she reached out to touch him, she would still feel the icy velvet of his black, featureless skin, the mellow shape of his noseless, mouthless muzzle.

She nodded an acknowledgment. The shadowy outline of her companion ducked and danced behind the flames, but his eyes—yellow, wily, cat-like—remained steady on her.

Old legends and wives' tales said to have a darkling visit your camp was an ill omen. Plants would wither, dogs would go mad, and milk would sour. Serenity, though, trafficked with enough darklings and otherworlders to expect the occasional appearance and never think anything of it. She lived in a world of ill omens.

D'aej, for that matter, wasn't just a darkling. He was a part of her, close as a Gemini twin. Having him in her camp was nothing new at all.

We've gone too long since resting these bones in a real bed, Serenity.

She sat up and stretched, relishing the false heat of his trick fire. The flames hid him from her, affording her only a glance of him here, a glance of him there, as he flickered in and out of sight.

"Why are you complaining?" she teased. "It's not as if it makes any difference to you."

Grim annoyance slithered across their psychic link.

The body is as much mine as it is yours, and I am growing weary of its aching joints.

"There's a town less than a day's ride from here," she said. "We'll be there soon enough. But we won't be staying long. We're on a hunt."

He didn't reply, but she sensed familiar seething distaste. After traveling the desert for almost nine days, with nothing but sand on the horizon, and no one but each other for company, D'aej lamented far more than the lack of creature comforts. But sometimes the hunt took turns like these, and the darkling should have learned to live with it by now.

With a grin, she sunk back into her bedroll and turned over, away from him, leaving him no one to banter with.

"We'll get to a town soon enough," she repeated. "Until then, you just keep your nose to the wind and keep us on the trail."

The man you are looking for is far ahead of us. It may be weeks before we catch up.

"All the more reason for us to be quick."

Time didn't matter. Serenity understood long walks and lonely roads. She and D'aej had walked across nearly the whole western half of the Geiral continent, from the lowland mining and farming towns, up the spine of the mountain ranges and even into the creeping shadow of the Rachalör, the demon country. They'd visited more taverns and gambling houses than they could name, and walked away from more cold trails and dead ends than most bounty hunters cared to put up with. They'd brought in more marks than those bounty hunters, too. A few more weeks—a bit more desert—would soon be forgotten.

"It's nothing new," she murmured. "Now let me sleep, or we'll get sick as well as sore. And I know how much you'd love adding that to your list of complaints."

Grim silence—his sour way of conceding—was the only reply.

 

***

 

Serenity dreamt of the Wolf's Den.

A small tavern, but the only tavern in Eclipse, a northern town sprung up in a thick pine forest of the mountain ranges. The town of Serenity's youth, and home to loggers, trappers, and a few humble farms. The Den stayed quiet most of the day, but livened up near sunset, when the dinner bells rang and the folk came in from their work. Then the bar, with its several tables scattered about for cardplayers and work crews, and its offering of spiced northern liquors and good, hearty cooking, came alive.

An enormous stone fireplace took up most of the wall opposite the entrance. There, one of Magda's girls kept the flames going all through the evening, longer as nights got steeper and colder. A set of stairs led up to the six small rooms above, where travelers could have their rest for the night, given the right coin. The rooms on the ground floor belonged to Magda, the Den's proprietress, and her girls—young ladies who found their way to her, needing work and a place to stay.

The Den always smelled of warm, roasting venison and Magda's best beer, of the sweat of hard wilderness men and their industrious women, the elusive perfume of the serving girls winding like ribbons among them. Magda herself, tall and wiry, kept a shrewd watch from her place at the bar. But all of that started when the customers came. In the now of Serenity's dream, the Den rested, looking forward to a later rush when it would be full to bursting, hardly a chair left empty.

Serenity sat at a table near the back of the room, a child of twelve, her serving towel across her lap and a small brown journal on the table before her. The pages were filled with scribbled symbols and jumbled notes, line after line of them, written in a child's uneven scrawl. As Serenity dealt out hand after hand of cards, carefully pondering the results, she added more to them and nibbled at her lip. The gamblers at the other tables dealt poker; Serenity cast the runes. The ancient language, discourse of Geiral's secretive arcane class, philosophers delving into the spiritual realms and mysteries of the otherworld. Diligent and tireless, Serenity dealt, studied, jotted down a note in her journal, shuffled, studied, dealt again. She'd finished her work among the serving tables, and Magda wouldn't need her again until six, when they served dinner. This gave her hours to indulge in her lessons. She cast again, studied, scribbled, shuffled, cast.

A warm hand came down on her shoulder.

"The darklings won't play today," she grumbled.

Jack—of course Jack, who else would it be?—offered her a gratifying chuckle. "Then it's good you're only throwing practice."

Jack Chamberlain served as Eclipse's homegrown lawman. Constant patron of the Den, he'd taught Serenity all she knew about runes. He was an expert when it came to arcane study and magic. He picked up her notes and read them over, hming and mm-hming as he did.

"Yes, definitely good," he said again. "The last thing you need is a real darkling throwing back at you with this sort of luck."

Serenity wrinkled her nose and swept the cards back into the deck. Two dozen gold-bordered fields of black shivered in her hands as she shuffled and cast again, muttering at the result.

"Tiewaz...rune of the champion. Spirituality. Discipline."

"Are you sure you drew that one against yourself?" Jack teased.

"Look at the next one."

He picked up the card. "Gebo. A great gift, a gift from the gods."

"But I drew it upside down. Merkstave position."

He chuckled again. "Like I said. Only practice."

Shot six times like a dog in the street...

Six times, doctor, dig 'em six feet.

She rapped her knuckles on the wood, chewing her lip, before sweeping up the cards and shuffling them.

"You didn't read the last ones," Jack said.

"Sure I did. They read of inauspicious timing, decisions made, withdrawal and isolation..."

"Are you sure?"

She glanced up at him. "They fell mostly upside down."

He returned her notes and ruffled her ash-blonde hair. "Well, keep trying, kiddo."

Six times, doctor, down in the street.

He left her then, crossing the room to the bar where Magda would pour him a frothy mug of warm ale. A weaver's trick would frost it for him the way he preferred, the rune isa cast on the glass to turn it crisp and cold. One of the simplest of spells.

Serenity gave her attention back to her cards. She shuffled. Split the deck. Shuffled again. Split again. Finally she drew a single card, pausing before flipping it over.

The world slowed around her, growing thick and malevolently certain. With eerie omniscience, the kind possessed only in dreams, Serenity looked up from her studies. She followed Jack with her eyes, taking him in with solemn calculation. A casual cowboy with holes in his jeans and a crooked, boyish smile on his face. Strong arm. Gentle voice. A charmer. A white hat.

Slowly, so slowly, he raised the glass of beer Magda handed him, tipping his head in an eternal nod, half turning to come back to the little girl—the little prodigy—waiting for him in the back.

Almost unaware of the motion of her hand, Serenity flipped the card she'd drawn. Even as she did, she knew it would be the end of him. It always was. The dull, distant sound of thunder echoed in the back of her mind, almost visible to her as it rippled outwards from her table and across the room with hateful promise. The low, husky laughter of a devilish phantom followed in its wake, a dark spirit sneaking through the shadows all around her.

Shot six times like a dog in the street...

Her lips formed the silent, terrible children's rhyme, words dancing in rhythm like a funeral march. And as she watched, hypnotized, a wet, red bloom flowered across the front of Jack's dusty chambray shirt.

He stumbled, falling forward, ever forward, his glass flying from his hand and spilling through the air. Still she turned the card, as Jack threw out his arms. He became a ghost, a faded picture, falling and falling, and the Wolf's Den fell with him, sifting away like sand, everything slipping away into darkness.

The sound of the card coming down on her lonely table made a solitary tick in the emptiness that remained. Then, for long, long moments, nothing. Silence deeper than silence.

I tried, Jack, a tiny voice—a child's voice—said in the back of her mind.

The shadows rippled. Someone, somewhere, started laughing, and the laughter somehow never spoiled the eerie quiet. She wasn't alone in this secret darkness. She sensed the desperado's grin, a glimmer of wicked love, a poisonous delight.

I tried.

"Thurisaz," she said out loud. Her voice doubled. It became the voice of a twelve-year-old novice studying her cards paired with the voice of a grown woman lost in the desert, filling up a gap of untold years. The snickers of a thousand demons scuttled through the shadows, the chorus of the darklings, the otherworlders, gleefully snickering and echoing through her mind.

"Thurisaz. The giant," she said. "Thurisaz, for pain, violence, thunder, rage."

And somewhere within her, deep within her, came the smug, purring sound of living darkness, prowling satisfied through her body.

Yes, it hissed. My thurisaz. The hammer and thorn.

My sweet, sweet Serenity.


© Copyright 2019 Brantwijn Serrah. All rights reserved.

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